Sleep

The WSJ weekend essay has a discussion of sleep (or the lack thereof) in our society.

The problem:

Nearly a third of working adults in America—roughly 41 million people—get less than six hours of sleep a night, according to a recent CDC report.

The effect:

The consequences of this change in lifestyle are far more dire than a simple loss of connection to the natural world. Researchers are increasingly finding that lack of sleep is terrible for our health. Sleeplessness has been linked to increased rates of heart disease, obesity, stroke and even certain cancers. The exact reasons for these effects are still largely unknown, but give support to the theory that sleep is the time when our bodies naturally repair themselves on a cellular level.

Recently, researchers have also found how important these overlooked hours are to our mental performance. Sleep, or the lack of it, is now thought to be a complex process that underpins everything from our ability to learn a new skill to how likely we are to find a novel solution to a problem. It is also considered a vital part of happiness and one of the best forms of preventative medicine.

And potential cures:

Nonetheless, there are steps we can take to adapt the way we approach sleep to be more effective for modern life. In a new branch of sleep medicine, scientists have identified how to get a good night’s sleep naturally. Most of the suggestions come down to changing your behavior. One thing you can do is go to bed at the same time every night. Also, studies have shown that people should avoid the bluish light from computer screens, TVs and smartphones—which our brains interpret as sunlight—for at least an hour before bed. And, by doing yoga or other relaxation techniques that put the mind at ease, subjects in studies have dramatically improved both their sleep quality and quantity.

This all comes down to a personal cost-benefit analysis. Is staying up a bit longer worth the hit to productivity the next day? What’s our personal discount rate between a few more tired minutes now and tired hours tomorrow?

There are also behavioral and social norming effects. Companies tend to look down on napping employees and most won’t let people take a siesta after lunch, even if it means those hours are wasted. Thankfully, some people have begun to look at the sleep decision in economic terms:

Such tracking and behavioral adjustment isn’t that far removed from the work that fatigue-management consultants do. Their work often consists of combing accident reports and comparing them with work schedules to find out how long employees on duty had been awake. By charting the outcomes, fatigue-management consultants are often able to prove that a greater respect for sleep can lead to better results at the office, whether that office is a multinational corporation or a local fire department.

Finally, there’s this terrifying bit on the effect of prescription sleep “aids”:

People seem to overestimate the effectiveness of sleeping pills, partly because of the placebo effect, and partly because some of these pills cause short-term memory loss that leaves people believing they got better sleep than they actually did—they just don’t remember all their tossing and turning.

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