Sleep is as essential to human existence as water, food and oxygen. Yet most of us never get enough it. As Happy Ali’s Michael Sheather discovers, if we sleep better, we’ll also feel better, look better and make ourselves healthier into the bargain.
That most famous of English bards, William Shakespeare, captured the very essence of how valuable sleep is to a human being when he wrote these lines way back in 1611:
“… the innocent sleep, sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care, the death of each day’s life, sore labour bath, balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, the chief nourisher in life’s feast.”
Eloquent, poetic and beautiful as these words remain four centuries after they were shaped to fit the mouth of Shakespeare’s Scottish protagonist Macbeth, they are also remarkable for one other thing – surprisingly, they are scientifically valid.
Sleep is indeed the great nourisher of us all. It rejuvenates us in a way that nothing else can. It revitalises us and gives us the strength, refreshment, energy and determination that allows us to make and follow through with every single decision we make.
Humans spend roughly one-third of their lives asleep. If you live to 75, then you should have spent 25 years asleep. And there are good reasons for that.
It is impossible to overstate how important sleep is, not just to what we are but also to who we are and who we wish to become.
And yet, here we sit 20 years into the 21st Century and humanity is actively robbing itself of the sleep it needs not just to survive, but to thrive.
Not only does sleep give us the opportunity to replenish and recuperate our bodies and minds, but it also provides our subconscious with the opportunity to establish memories, learn, sort out our emotional wellbeing, stave off illness by stimulating our immune system, regulate our blood and circulatory system, keep us slim and make us feel great.
That’s a lot of work and, according to our best scientists, it takes at least eight hours to achieve it. But too few of us are getting eight hours sleep, and there’s the real problem.
Instead, by not getting the sleep we need, we are depleting and deleting sleep’s natural ability to reverse the diminishing physical, emotional and psychological effects of life in the most challenging and complex era of human existence.
The entire world is caught in a sleep loss pandemic of far greater proportions – and perhaps even more far-reaching and dire consequences – than that caused by the coronavirus. The World Health Organisation (WHO) actually declared a worldwide sleeplessness epidemic just a few years ago.
We sleep on average about two hours less each night than we did 100 years ago. In evolutionary terms, a century isn’t even the blink of an eye and yet within the span of that blink humanity has eradicated roughly 25 per cent of a commodity we need more of in our lives, not less.
In a telling example, people in the US sleep an average of 6.8 hours every night. Yet, in 1942, during the most destructive, horrific war the world has ever seen, Americans managed to overcome anxiety and grief to sleep an average of eight hours a night.
In Japan, that figure is now an eye-watering 5.59 hours sleep each night. In Saudi Arabia, it is just 6 hours and eight minutes. And in Sweden people sleep a total of 6 hours and 10 minutes.
Australians and New Zealanders, it seems, are among the most rested people in the world, managing somewhere between 7 and 7.5 hours each night.
The sad truth is that more than 60 per cent of the entire global population gets less, and in some cases much less, than the minimum eight hours recommended as the minimum needed for the proper function of the human mind and body.
All around us, sleep is becoming more elusive by the minute – if sleep was an animal, you’d classify it as an endangered species. And the more complex, stressed, divided, complicated and demanding our lives become the more sleep slips from our ever-faltering grip.
It’s so prevalent that sleep deprivation is now regarded as a money-making opportunity. In New York before the coronavirus pandemic, exhausted, over-worked corporate executives were paying $10 per half hour to nap in soundproofed, handcrafted sleep pods.
Authors have turned sleeplessness into a self-help industry. Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post, has turned her obsession with sleep and its benefits into a series of best-selling books, including The Sleep Revolution and Thrive an impassioned plea for well-being and our desperate need to re-evaluate the nature and tolls of success in the modern age.
Even the hugely respected Dr Michael Mosley, a noted documentary maker and one of Great Britain’s most famous medicos and researchers, recently released a how-to book entitled Fast Asleep. It details how he managed to beat his own insomnia with a series of meticulously researched strategies that worked for him. Don’t worry, we’ll return to the eminent Dr Mosley and a practical approach to overcoming sleeplessness a little later.
Somewhat ironically, the very technological devices that have helped steal sleep from us are now providing an embarrassment of apps (more than 50 at last count) to overcome our bleary-eyed restlessness, delivering peaceful sounds (think rain on a tin roof), meditation techniques, sleep therapy advice, rainforest noise, and even television-like white noise to block the world’s disturbances at bedtime.
The global sleep industry is now thought to be worth billions as we pay to attain what is a basic yet essential human function.
A report released in December 2017 estimates that the global sleeping aids market will be worth $31 billion by 2025 with North America and Europe as the market leaders. And that was before we suffered a deadly viral pandemic.
As a result, there’s a new buzz phrase on the block. Let me introduce Sleep Hygiene, a tag that quite literally refers to the habits that help you get a good night’s sleep. And that is a good thing.
And here is another good fact – sleeplessness as a worldwide Google search term increased more than 150 per cent during April this year.
What does that actually mean? It means that yes, millions of us are feeling sleep deprived and realise we are suffering as a result, but the glimmer of hope on the horizon is that a gathering horde of us is finally recognising the problem for what it is and want to do something about it. Our aim? Getting our eyes firmly closed and our minds set firmly on the road to the elusive Land of Nod.
Part Two. Why we need sleep and how we can dramatically our lives when we get it. Stay tuned.