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Time for Bed: Why We Should Be Getting Serious About Sleep

14/12/2015 00:24 GMT | Updated 13/12/2016 10:12 GMT

"The amount of sleep required by the average person is five minutes more." -Wilson Mizener

It's estimated that we'll all spend about 26 years of our lives asleep, but did you get enough shut-eye last night? No?

Well, neither did I. In fact most of us, six out of every ten adults, are estimated to suffer from sleep deprivation, thanks in part to the pressures, pace and technology of modern life. Only a very lucky 17% of us regularly sleep through the night.

It might not seem like a big problem but this behavior has a major impact on our health.

Time to cancel the lie-in?

Many of us try and often fail to get eight hours' sleep each night. For years, this had been widely assumed to be the ideal amount - but some experts now say it's too much, and may actually be bad for us. But can it really be true that getting eight hours or more sleep does you more harm than getting five?

Well, as you might expect, it depends. What we do know is that getting the right amount of sleep is an important factor in being alert the next day.

There's a clear relationship between getting seven hours of sleep and "optimal cognitive performance", whereas staying up late can have a huge impact on your reaction time. 18 hours of wakefulness actually has the same effect on reaction time as being legally drunk, and yet that doesn't always stop us driving or staying late in the office.

Just as important as the behavioural consequences of poor sleep is its negative effect on health - sleep deficiency is a risk factor for hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and even early death. But even if seven hours is about the right amount of sleep for most adults, not many of us sleep solidly through the night.

Now this could be down to worrying, external factors or even sleep apnea, and while there's little we can easily do about the two former complaints, there have been advances in care for the latter. Today there are plenty of clinically proven options for sufferers of sleep apnea that can help them to enjoy a much better night's sleep.

Along with devices specifically aimed at sufferers of sleep disorders, the good news is that the last five years have also seen a wave of devices, sensors, wearables and apps appear on the market, all claiming to help the rest of us monitor, manage and improve our sleep.

But do sleep trackers work?

Wearables attached to your wrist can give you an idea of how long you sleep, though they can mistakenly include the minutes when you're lying still in bed, trying to drift off, as additional time asleep. Some of the current sleep trackers also measure heart rate and breathing rate and use them to provide a rough estimate of sleep cycles as you move from deep to light sleep and back.

The main trouble with these trackers, however, is the fact that they can't yet accurately monitor sleep stages, such as REM sleep (rapid eye movement). For now, the only way to monitor this accurately is by having an expert physically witness your eye movement in a sleep hospital or by tracking brain waves - neither option is realistic for a consumer wearable just yet.

While these tools aren't yet so clever that they can help us diagnose sleep disorders, there's every chance they'll improve over the next few years. At the moment, they can provide a helpful monitoring service for us, helping us compare nights when we know we've slept well and nights where we've slept poorly, and encouraging us to get the best sleep possible. As always, trackers only make sense if we use them to motivate us to improve.

In the near future, as wearables get better at measuring our sleep, we can also expect to see advanced sensors being integrated in our mattresses and bedrooms. These sensors might also connect to other elements in our living environment that affect our sleep, such as lighting.

So, how much sleep should we aim for?

Luckily you should be able to figure out your optimal amount of sleep quite easily.

In a trial of at least three days, and ideally when you're relaxed on holiday, simply forget to set your alarm clock. Don't struggle to stay awake or force yourself to go to bed early; just go to sleep when you feel tired. Avoid caffeine and alcohol and stay off electronic devices for a couple of hours before going to bed. During those three days, keep a note of your sleep or use a monitoring device. If you feel refreshed and alert during the day, then congratulations, you've probably discovered your ideal sleep time!

Time to turn off

Unfortunately, just because you know that you function at your best on 7.25 hours' sleep, that doesn't mean you'll always be able to get it. Better sleep means making better lifestyle choices. Go to bed when you're tired. Try to give the next level of Candy Crush a miss before bedtime and put your tablet away.

For companies and employers, it would be in your best interests to help create a work environment that doesn't venerate all-nighters and sleep-deprived employees. Global companies should also take into account normal sleeping hours when scheduling calls. With all the studies linking lack of sleep to poor immunity, offices with a better work-life balance will benefit from fewer employee sick days and increased productivity - but just having fewer grumpy employees demolishing the office's coffee stocks could well be benefit enough.

On that note, I'm off to take a nap.