You Snooze, You Win.
The effects of sleep on your health and what you can do about it
The curious case of Michael Corke
In 1991, a music teacher from Illinois named Michael Corke faced a peculiar problem - he was having trouble sleeping. In the following months, his sleeplessness grew worse until he could no longer manage to sleep at all. As his doctors scrambled to figure out the source of this tortuous illness to no avail, he sadly died after six months of total sleep deprivation.
Today, it is generally believed that Michael Corke suffered from Fatal Familial Insomnia. While such cases of the genetic disorder are extremely rare, the story of Michael Corke highlights the catastrophic health consequences of sleeplessness.
Why sleep should be more than just a luxury
Nobody can deny the importance of sleep. Even after one bad night of sleep, we suffer poorer concentration, forgetfulness, and a lower sex drive. Numerous studies have shown that if sleep deprivation continues at five hours or less, the risk of cardiovascular disease doubles and we lose weight at a far slower rate. (1)
Many of us will have also witnessed firsthand the effects of a lack of sleep on mood, stress, and depression. During the 20th century, reports of depression skyrocketed. Today, 300 million people around the world have depression and 15 percent of the adult population are estimated to experience about at some point in their lifetime. The link between depression and sleep is clear, with 90% of patients with depression complaining about sleep quality (2)
The collective worsening of sleep as the years have passed and technology has advanced is worth very serious examination, for not only does it undoubtedly impact our lifespan but also the quality of our lives. As we’ve grown increasingly dependent on the interconnectedness of the internet, smartphones and computer screens, so has society's quality of sleep dwindled. This has led us to examine further the costs of our technological innovations on our natural hormonal functioning and how they impact our ability to switch off at night.
The role of melatonin
Melatonin - a hormone produced by the pineal gland - is one of the main triggers for inducing sleep at sundown. Because it must be released at the appropriate time, a part of the brain (namely the suprachiasmatic nucleus) tells the pineal gland to decrease the melatonin level when it is light out and to increase it when it is dark. Exposure to artificial light, especially before bedtime, tends to suppress our natural melatonin production, causing insomnia and trouble falling asleep.
This is why many sleep specialists recommend minimizing artificial light exposure for at least an hour before bed. With the high demands of work and life, however, many of us will find this unrealistic. In such cases, damage control may be your best option. Adjusting your displays’ color temperature, using a software such as F.lux, can reduce the negative effects of screen time on sleep by reducing exposure to blue light. (3)
As an adjunct to minimising artificial light, taking a melatonin tablet 30-60 minutes before bed may reduce sleep latency - the time it takes to fall asleep. The benefits of taking a supplement extend beyond sleep. It also acts as an anti-oxidant and a powerful anti-inflammatory.
How sunlight affects sleep
Making our days brighter is equally as important as making our nights darker. Exposure to sunlight has been shown to increase serotonin production, a chemical which positively affects mood and wellbeing. Serotonin also acts as a precursor to melatonin - serotonin is converted into melatonin as the sun goes down.
Modern work life also makes it difficult to get a healthy daily dose of sunlight. However, a mere stroll out in the sunshine during a lunch break is likely to make a substantial difference in your sleep quality. A recent study showed that subjects exposed to just 2 hours of bright light during the day produced more melatonin at night, creating a cascade of health benefits, including better brain health (neuroplasticity) and faster recovery from jet lag. (4)
Given that a whopping $411 billion per year is lost in the U.S. alone due to lack of sleep, we would be wise to give ourselves the fundamental freedoms of good sleep. (5)
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