Travel, exploration and being more connected are a global dream experienced and sought after by many. We all have dreams, things we want to achieve and do in life - but the dreams we consider least, in today's world, are those that happen every night.
What I find more astonishing however, is the price of staying-up late. Whilst Barack Obama, Madonna and other successful stars may preach the power of shorter sleep patterns, two-thirds of British adults are failing to get the necessary, recommended 8 hours of sleep each night. Whether they are aware or not, this puts them at increased risk of heart attacks, obesity diabetes and other health issues. A lack of sleep can also affect daily mental performance across productivity, memory, creativity and even happiness.
So I am here to answer two questions. What is causing this global sleep epidemic? And more importantly, what can people do about it?
Avoiding the Blues
Right now you have a clock ticking away inside your body and brain. This biological timepiece, known as your 'circadian rhythm', is affected by light and helps determine how sleepy you feel. On exposure to light, the release of a chemical called melatonin, which makes us feel sleepy, is supressed - thus making us feel awake. In darkness however, melatonin is free to be released, allowing us to drift asleep easier.
So here is the problem
Up until recently, the sun was the only major light source on earth. As such, peoples 'circadian rhythms' were always directly in sync with their natural environment - in that they went to sleep as the sun went down, then woke-up as it rose. However, with everything from lightbulbs to computer screens and smartphones projecting light today, our melatonin levels are being affected.
When you bathe yourself in artificial light - particularly blue spectrum light, which most computer screens and other electronic devices make-use of, your natural 'circadian rhythms' is disrupted. This is why shift workers often report issues falling asleep and 'grogginess' on awakening. And the problem is escalated for worldly globetrotters. Imagine boarding a flight early afternoon, and arriving eight hours later in the bright-midday sunlight of another continent - then checking your smartphone or emails as you leave the plane! How much more would this effect our 'circadian rhythm'?
The Sleep Paradox
Worry and concern are the things that keep almost half of the sleep deprived population awake at night. Ask an anxious person to try and push a negative thought out of their mind. What happens? They end-up dwelling on whatever it was that made them feel worried. Much in the same way, if you were to ask a smoker not to think of lighting-up, he or she would naturally find themselves thinking cigarette-related thoughts. In short, trying 'not' to think of something, naturally results in us imagining the very thing we were trying to avoid.
In the late 1970's, researcher, Michael Ascher, set out to discover whether this effect might help insomnia sufferers. Ascher assembled a group of volunteers and had them take part in a standard ten-week programme of relaxation exercises designed to help them sleep better. On average, the volunteers took about 40 minutes to fall asleep. Ascher then asked the volunteers to actively try to stay awake each night. Ascher speculated that the act of trying to stay awake would make the volunteers drift asleep more quickly. And he was right. On trying to stay awake, the volunteers fell asleep within 10 minutes of climbing into bed. This curious effect has been found time and again. Naturally, the effect is believed to work, because the act of trying to stay awake is both mentally tiring and also distracting from anxious thoughts.
Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This
So how can people travel, work and socialise today and still secure those essential sleep hours? Well, the reality is, there is no quick fix, magic-pill solution. Whilst, one rough-night won't immediately cause you serious illness, and likewise occasionally using your smartphone in the evening won't hugely disrupt your melatonin levels, overtime the perils of sleep deprivation can be seen.
My top tips for a sound night sleep:
• Avoid using your smartphone or tablet during the latter part of the evening
• Make a habit of avoiding emails and social media these not only expose you to more blue light, but also can cause more anxious thoughts
• If turning-off your computer isn't an option, alter the screen brightness or blue light levels with an app like iFlux
• Prioritise and invest in your overall health and wellbeing; there are a lot of factors that can impact sleep. Consider going for an annual check-up to measure your wellness levels, year-on-year. Bupa Global health plans were created for all-round health protection for the mind as well as the body and include health checks
• Actively try to stay awake. Remember, try to keep your eyes open (you are allowed to blink), but don't read, watch television, use a computer, or move about
• If you really are struggling, you could invest in a pair of amber-tinted glasses that block blue-light
• To help prevent bad dreams and nightmares, don't try to avoid thinking about your worries and concerns just before you go to sleep. Instead, simply allow these thoughts and images to gently and freely flow through your mind
Richard Wiseman has written this article as part of a partnership between Bupa Global Health Insurance and The School of Life's campaign to raise awareness about the long-term of effects of sleep deprivation in an ever-growing global culture. For more information visit http://www.bupaglobal.com/en/article-folder/sleep-smart/avoiding-the-blues