Your mom is right: you probably need more sleep
Burning the midnight oil is likely burning you out, more and more science suggests
Since the commercial success of the lightbulb at the end of the 19th century, the night has held less sway over our lives. For the first time, we were able to cheat our own biology on an industrial scale and keep productive for longer by cutting back on sleep.
The man responsible, Thomas Edison, fully supported the implications of his invention. “There is really no reason why men should go to bed at all,” he said back in 1914.
A whole century later, cutting down on sleep is still often considered a requirement for success. So it should not be particularly surprising that we are chronically sleep deprived. We sleep one to two hours less than we should, and in the US, only 54 percent of people are getting seven to eight hours’ sleep a night. But a recent study by Mathias Basner and David Dinges at the University of Pennsylvania suggests that we might finally be starting to lessen our disdain for sleep.
The modern world appears to have adopted Edison’s view that sleep is dead time for productivity. There's no lack of websites, blogs, and books which promote ways you can hack your sleep to ensure you are getting the most out of each day. These are largely aimed at those climbing the business ladder, who are keen to keep incessantly productive, or want to appear stronger than everyone else who admits to needing more than four hours.
Yet the influence of these sources of “sleep hacks” goes beyond the boardroom. See, for instance, the combination of laptops, smartphones, tablets and televisions fighting for our attention – and usually winning – over an "early" night. Screen use by itself is not inherently problematic, but using them before bedtime can disrupt our body’s natural rhythms that are critical for dropping off to sleep. It is our inability to switch off in the hours before we retire to bed which are the most problematic for society’s relationship with sleep.
The negative influence of electronic devices and artificial light was shown clearly in studies where participants are let loose on camping trips without the use of artificial light. Under these conditions people show a pattern of sleep which changes in line with the available natural light. Admittedly, participants in these studies only had each other and nature to occupy them rather than the latest Netflix series or an urgent midnight email from the office, but the points stands. Sleep, for most of us, takes a back seat to life.
Our lack of sleep has more serious consequences than reaching for that third cup of coffee before lunch. Sleep deprivation is associated with an increased risk for heart disease, obesity, diabetes, car crashes, and industry accidents, and puts us at increased risk for mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. On a day-to-day basis, sleep deprivation is associated with difficulty in memory, concentration, and creativity. To me, and many other sleep scientists, it’s hard to understand the view that sleep is a "hindrance" for anyone who wants to be successful.
More sleep in America
Basner and Dinges provide evidence that we sleep researchers no longer have to feel alone in our passion. In a large study of just over 180,000 US residents, they found that sleep duration was increasing year on year. The effect was small, adding 1.4 minutes of extra sleep a day every year for the survey duration (2003-2016). This hardly seems revolutionary. However, the increase equates to an extra 20 minutes a night on average since 2003, and an extra five days of sleep in the year 2016 compared to 2003. As the effect of sleep loss on functioning and health is cumulative, this is an encouraging improvement.
The duo also split up the amount of sleep individuals were getting into three different categories: short (seven hours or less), normal (seven to nine hours), and long sleepers (more than nine hours). They found no difference in the number getting seven to nine hours’ sleep, but there were fewer in the short and more in the long sleep groups over the survey period. That means that more people, year on year, were sleeping 10 hours or more on an average night. Although this may sound good, we still don't know how sleeping longer effects our health. Although there are individual differences in how much sleep is needed to feel rested, greater than nine hours’ sleep is associated with depression, obesity, and diabetes. Yet, it’s unclear whether the illnesses in question are powering the extra sleep or vice versa.
The authors are, understandably, excited about the implications of this research: a large sample of the US appears to be sleeping more. However, these changes are still small, and we need to see bigger increases than 20 minutes to account for the, on average, two hours sleep debt society is racking up nightly. Also, the increase in sleep duration was only seen in employed and university student respondents. In fact, university students showed an increase of just over three minutes sleep year on year – over double that seen for the average across all groups studied.
The study also doesn’t tell us why these changes occurred. One potential explanation might be the seeming increase in the media’s love of sleep as evinced by books, major news outlets, and even businesses promoting its importance. It is impossible to attribute any changes seen in this study directly to the media, or other influences for that matter, but the results at least hints at sleep being on the mind of the public. Basner and Dinges did show that there was an association between people googling “sleep,” research publications on sleep, and sleep duration in this survey. The increasing interest in sleep appears to not be restricted to the public. The study also identified an increase in research studies with "sleep duration" or "sleep time" in the title from 2003 to 2016. Again, it is still hard to say whether these co-occurring results could explain changes in sleep habits.
Despite an increase in academic and public interest in sleep, we are still not certain why most of us drift off every night. It remains an intractable question despite how fundamental sleep is across multiple species in the animal kingdom. Although Basner and Dinges’ study is restricted to telling us about trends and not causes, it does provide hope that we may be starting to acknowledge sleep’s importance.
We may not know exactly why we sleep, but we know we can’t keep trying to cheat ourselves out of it. Perhaps in another 13 years we will see even more people taking sleep seriously and, just maybe, considering it a vital part of success.