Many of us are obsessed by sleep – mainly because we think we are not getting enough! But there is a way of approaching sleep that may just cause a revolution in the way we think about it, and the way we experience it.
When we are young, we love to sleep – in fact, we spend most of our time doing it! As we grow older, our need for sleep can diminish, but so can our ability to sleep, whenever and wherever we choose to. Some of this is the normal process of ageing and maturation, but some of it is not.
We may struggle with sleep in various ways: we may have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, waking up in the morning... it can all start to feel very difficult. Sometimes we can get to the point where we are so exhausted that we don’t have the energy to go to sleep, as – ‘newsflash!’ – we need energy to get to sleep. In this exhausted state – because we cannot just stop and nap any time we feel like it, as we did when we were babies – we turn to food and drink to keep us going: coffee and carbs in the mornings and through the day, alcohol in the evenings, and sleeping pills at night – and all of this just fuels the cycle of poor and restless sleep.
We can even get to the point where, even though we may desire sleep above all else, we find our trouble with sleeping so stressful that we start to avoid sleep, and turn to any of the many distractions available to put off the inevitable. We use food, drink, alcohol, coffee, books, TV, movies, social media – anything to stay awake until we are so exhausted that we can keep our eyes open no longer. We nod off in front of the TV and wake up at some ungodly hour, when we drag ourselves to bed, and if we are ‘lucky’, go back to sleep again.
We think of life as something we live in a straight line . . . night . . . follows day . . . follows night . . . follows day . . . on and on we go, forever leaving the last day behind us . . . never to return.
But what if life is a cycle? What if we are going around and around the sun (as we are) and returning to the same spot over and over again . . . never leaving anything behind, but carrying it all with us, as we continue to go around?
Would that revolutionise the way we look at life?
And would that revolutionise the way we look at sleep?
If the way we live each day influences how we sleep at night, which then influences how we are the next day, then that would make sleep . . . everything!
We can do without food for longer than we can go without sleep. Forcing ourselves to go without sleep can feel like torture (just ask any young mother or junior doctor!), and in fact sleep deprivation has been used as such.
What happens if we don’t get enough sleep?
Studies have shown that driving while tired is as dangerous as driving while drunk. [i] Being tired affects our alertness, concentration, attention span, reaction times, judgement, awareness of the environment and our decision-making skills. It can also result in a micro-sleep, where we fall asleep for a few seconds or even minutes without being aware of it.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the USA conservatively estimates that 100,000 police-reported crashes are the direct result of driver fatigue each year. This results in an estimated 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injuries, and $12.5 billion in monetary losses. These figures may be the tip of the iceberg, since currently it is difficult to attribute crashes to sleepiness.[i]
According to data from Australia, England, Finland, and other European nations, all of whom have more consistent crash reporting procedures than the USA, drowsy driving represents 10 to 30 percent of all crashes.[i]
A study by researchers in Australia showed that being awake for 18 hours produced an impairment equal to a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.05, and 0.10 after 24 hours.[i]
Increasingly, in our culture, where we try to fit more than a day’s work into 24 hours, sleep is the first thing we sacrifice, for we do not truly understand or value its importance. But lack of sleep affects us, both in the short term and the long term.
Lack of sleep impairs performance
The amount of sleep we need differs from person to person and from one stage of life to another – babies and teenagers need more, and as we get older we tend to need less. Let’s say that a person who needs eight hours of sleep per night only gets six. This two-hour sleep loss in one night can have a major impact including:
- Reduced alertness
- Shortened attention span
- Slower than normal reaction time
- Poorer judgement
- Reduced awareness of the environment and situation
- Reduced decision-making skills
- Poorer memory
- Reduced concentration
- Increased likelihood of mentally ‘stalling’ or fixating on one thought
- Increased likelihood of moodiness and bad temper
- Reduced work efficiency
- Loss of motivation
- Errors of omission – making a mistake by forgetting to do something
- Errors of commission – making a mistake by doing something, but choosing the wrong option
- Micro-sleep – brief periods of involuntary sleeping that range from a few seconds to a few minutes in duration.[ii]
We have all experienced the tiredness, bad mood or trouble concentrating that comes from a poor night’s sleep. If the lack of sleep goes on for longer than one night, the effects can build up in the body, and this can lead to chronic disease and ill-health, in particular inflammation, hypertension, diabetes and obesity[iii].
So, how much sleep is enough?
If sleep is so important, you may wonder, how much sleep is enough?
The commonly cited 8 hours a night is an average, and most people function well on 7-9 hours a night. But many people can function with 6 hours' sleep, and there also are some who need 9 hours or more.[iv]
What is not spoken much about is the quality of sleep and the timing of sleep.
We tend to sleep soundly when we are young, and not so much as we age, and one of the things that changes is when we go to sleep.
The hours of sleep between 9pm and 1am are the most restful and restorative of the night, and if we miss this sleep boat, no amount of sleep will ever feel enough. And if we do routinely give ourselves these hours to rest, little more may be required.
What is the purpose of sleep?
Sleep is not just a necessity that we need to function in life. We can do without food for longer than we can do without sleep, and after air and water it is the thing our bodies need the most. But sleep is about much more than mere function, as is life.
In sleep we reflect on and resolve the problems of the day before, restore our bodies and beings, and refresh ourselves for the day to come. We dream and heal and deepen our understanding of and [connection] with ourselves and other people.
If we live in a way that honours the true purpose of sleep, it can become a sacred time each night that actually evolves us as people and as beings, back towards our souls, and the oneness we are all from.