Last week, the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), in partnership with the University of Oxford, published 'Waking up to the health benefits of sleep', a report examining sleep as a public health issue.
Our research has shown a worrying gap between how much sleep people feel they need versus how much sleep they are actually getting. The average person sleeps just 6.8 hours a night but told us they feel like they need 7.7 hours - which is about right for most adults. This means people are missing out on just under an hour every night, which amounts to a full night every week, or over seven weeks of lost sleep a year.
In our 24/7 society, it seems we have generally accepted that not getting enough sleep is the norm and that this is the price we pay for what we believe are more important activities in our lives such as hitting deadlines at work, attending social events or even staying up late to binge-watch yet another episode of our favourite TV series. However, as we understand more about the functions and processes of sleep, it would appear that this attitude could be hugely detrimental to our health and wellbeing, in much the same way that eating an unhealthy diet, drinking over recommended alcohol guidelines and being physically inactive are inherently bad for us.
An expanding evidence base shows that sleep deprivation and poor sleep are associated with a whole range health conditions including cancer, diabetes, heart attack and depression. Lack of sleep also dramatically affects performance and concentration; being awake for more than 24 hours is comparable to being over the UK drink-drive limit. This puts shift workers and those working in certain industries, such as healthcare and construction, at particular risk of the most severe consequences.
It is therefore long overdue that we give sleep the parity it deserves alongside other healthy lifestyle behaviours such as being physically active or eating a balanced diet. Our research suggests there is public demand for this: getting enough sleep was ranked second only to not smoking in terms of what the public believe is most important to optimise their health and wellbeing.
So, what can we do to improve our sleep? There are a number of steps we can take, both as a society and as individuals. At a national level, our report suggests a number of measures that could be taken to raise awareness of the benefits of good sleep and put sleep on a par with many other vitally important public health issues. We would like to see the Government publish a national sleep strategy, setting out a comprehensive plan, including a 'slumber number' guideline to indicate to the public roughly how many hours sleep we should strive to get depending on our age. The strategy should be a recognised part of the remit of a government minister, in a similar way to other public health issues such as physical activity and obesity.
The Government can also spread awareness of the importance of sleep through its inclusion within Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education in schools, equipping young people with the knowledge and skills to protect their own health and wellbeing throughout their life-course. It should also make Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) more widely available, to tackle the problems faced by the one in three people living with some form of sleep disorder in the UK.
As individuals, there are also some really simple things we can do to improve our sleep. This starts with making healthy behaviours in other areas of our lives, including maintaining a healthy diet, and getting plenty of physical exercise during the day - studies have shown that those who undertake at least 150 minutes per week sleep significantly better than those who do not. Everyone can also take steps to maintain better 'sleep hygiene' - habits and practices that are conducive to sleeping well on a regular basis. This includes avoiding caffeinated drinks before bed, and removing TVs, laptops, tablets and smart phones from the bedroom prior to sleeping.
What we really need is a cultural shift in attitude. Sleep should not be seen as lazy or unproductive. Quite the contrary, sleep is vital and restorative. It is also part of the bedrock on which healthy lifestyles are ultimately built. Getting enough good quality sleep benefits us in so many aspects of our lives that it seems truly irresponsible to shrug it off as one of life's inevitabilities that we just won't get enough.