Human beings spend more time being asleep than anything else. It is estimated that at the turn of the twentieth century the average American slept nine hours each night. By the turn of the twenty first century this figure has dropped to under eight hours. Lack of sleep is a contributing factor in numerous physical and mental health problems. This includes depression, anxiety, heart disease, and type two diabetes.
It has been estimated by NASA that after 20 hours of being awake one’s capabilities were equivalent or worse than at 0.05 percent alcohol.
Let that sink in! With impairment beyond 0.05% alcohol you can go about your business including driving because there is no simple revenue generating way of testing for fatigue.
Why do we let this happen. Why have we let sleep become optional?
There are three main drivers.
First, we can all tend to think we are indispensable and that if not working the world will stop turning. In reality we can do good whilst at work but someone else can do it if we are not. This is a mindset issue and as such can be changed.
Second is the structure of training and education. High school students are put under pressure to pass exams. This leads to long nights of study with insufficient sleep and in some instances use of medication to keep themselves awake. This flows through into university and then often into working life.
Ultimately, the worst that can happen when studying is that you may need to repeat an exam or even repeat a subject. Sure this is not what anyone wants – but in the overall scheme of things it is a blip not a catastrophe.
The view remains in some professions that unless one works ridiculous hours one cannot get enough experience. Yet somehow pilots (who have lives in their hands) are able to be trained and have enforced breaks between flights.
In turn this behaviour gets passed down the generations. I went through this so why shouldn’t you! This phenomenon was best illustrated in Michael Palin’s Ripping Yarn Tomkinson’s Schooldays. In this a bullied Tomkinson vows to change the system but eventually gets appointed school bully and then decides change needs to be slow and makes no changes.
Thirdly, the 24/7 society has devalued sleep seeing it as optional. A century ago when it got dark there was little else to do aside sleep. And most people did physical work or had to expend energy to get from “A” to “B” so were tired by days end. Today we have a myriad of after dark options. And of course, the advent of smart phones has meant we don’t even need to sit on front of the TV to be “entertained.”
Yet we can survive far longer without food than without sleep. The issue doesn’t interest doctors that much as there are in the main no medical solutions to sleep problems. However, there is much you can do to improve sleep. Listening to calming music or sounds (yes, your device can also be your friend), use of scented candles, herbal teas and a warm shower can all be useful. Make the room dark. Have a routine. Switch off screens at least 45 minutes before going to bed.
Regular exercise helps with sleep as well as general health. Don’t go to bed on a full stomach. Don’t overdo the alcohol. Practice meditation or guided relaxation.
We can take responsibility for our actions as individuals. When you are tired go to bed! Make sleep a priority. As a society we can do better than Tomkinson. Rather than perpetuate the problem we can implement the changes.
Medical Doctor, author, speaker, media presenter and health industry consultant, Dr Joe Kosterich wants you to be healthy and get the most out of life.
Joe writes for numerous medical and mainstream publications, is clinical editor at Medical Forum Magazine, and is also a regular on radio and television.
Joe is Medical Advisor to Medicinal Cannabis Company Little Green Pharma, Chairman of Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association and sits on the board of Arthritis and Osteoporosis WA. He is often called to give opinions in medico legal cases.