I was once a champion sleeper. I could sleep on planes in economy, I could sleep on couches, on beds hard as nails or on beds as soft as candy-floss. I could sleep after drinking half-a-dozen cappuccinos or sipping a strong after-dinner espresso. I could doze off at 10 p.m. just as easily as 3 a.m., my bed-time was entirely opportunistic, I went to sleep when my day ended, I just lay my head on a pillow and bam, gone for eight hours. It was fabulous.
But no more. In recent weeks I have discovered insomnia, and now that I have experienced going through my days in a zombie-like state, never feeling fully awake nor fully rested, waking up in the morning even more exhausted than when I went to sleep, I feel enormous sympathy for those who suffer from insomnia on a regular basis.
Insomnia doesn’t sound like much. It’s like being tired, a result of modern life, something most of us put up with and hope will pass. Something temporary, a little unpleasant, but on the whole benign. Sleep is nice, but we can get by on a little less of it, c’est la vie. So we drink more coffee in the morning to get us going, and stay up late in front of television screens or browsing computers and tablets until exhaustion gets the better of us and we fall asleep, often only to wake up a few hours later and find ourselves desperately trying to fall back asleep before the alarm rings just when, finally, we had drifted into a blissful state! It’s called modern life.
But sleep is not something we should take for granted. For a start, sleep is vital for our health and well-being. Poor sleep is detrimental both to our emotional and our physical health. Not only does it make us irritable, less alert and generally less able to do every day tasks, but it puts us at greater risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and a number of other illnesses. Sleeping well is as important as a healthy diet and regular exercise, and not surprisingly, eating badly and not exercising are associated with poor sleep.
But what strikes me is that if at least one in four people suffers from insomnia, as the statistics suggest, then that must have a serious impact on society. From the increased risk of accidents, to people making errors or being exceedingly grouchy, or just simply being miserable because they haven’t slept properly. Surely we should be assigning more importance to the time we spend asleep.
I wonder too at the consequences of becoming a society that never shuts down, when people can at any time of day or night read e-mails, send texts, tweet, and do all kinds of other always-on activities. If we never fully-switch off, if we remain on a stand-by of sorts, then is it any wonder so many of us are sleeping badly?
Is poor sleep a consequence of modern life? I was struck by the results of a recent study by sleep researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder. Eight participants went camping for a week in the Rocky Mountains. The researchers measured their exposure to sunlight and their activity, as well as their melatonin levels, before and after the week camping. After a week, all the participants had synchronized circadian inner clocks, with their biological night-times starting at sun-set and ending at sunrise, and more importantly all of them woke up after the end of their biological night-time, resulting in being more alert and rested. It turns out natural light is a key signal for our internal clocks, one that electrical light can’t quite simulate, the week’s camping resulted in the participants being exposed to four times the intensity of light as when going about their daily lives. This suggests that if we want to sleep better we can either go camping regularly, or mind how we expose our body to light, making sure we get lots of sunlight in the morning and turning down lights and avoiding staring at lit screens in the evening. In other words we need to be more in synch with the natural rhythm of nature, figures really.
There are people who consider sleep time wasted, who complain that we waste a good chunk of our lives lying in a bed with our eyes closed when we could be out there living and having fun.
I could never get that. Sleep has always been important to me, not just in terms of the difference it makes to how alert, energized and happy I feel during the day, but in itself. It is akin to meditation or prayer, a time of stillness, when you can listen to your thoughts, reflect on your day and on your behavior, a time when you are open to enlightenment. It is also, through lucid dreaming, an intensely creative time, a time to slip out of the boring hum-drum of daily life and imagine anything we like, suddenly everything is possible.
Sleep is not time wasted, on the contrary sleep is part of the richness of life. Nor is getting a good night’s sleep a luxury, or something dispensable, it is something vital which we as a society should value and encourage. Insomnia is not a benign inconvenience, it is a serious issue that deserves proper attention.
– Imane Kurdi is a Saudi writer on European affairs. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org