Why Are We Losing So Much Healthy Sleep And What Can We Do About It?

Healthy sleep is vital to our health and enjoyment of life. A major cause of lost sleep is stress and overwork. In stressful times in our life a common reaction is to rev ourselves up to meet the demands placed upon us. Stresses may come and go in our individual lives. But now our entire society seems to be stressed. Almost no one would argue that we are now experiencing stress of historic proportions (circa 2009).

One of the first casualties of stress is healthy sleep.

We Americans are struggling with insomnia more than ever. In 2005 a poll by the National Sleep Foundation reported that less than half of all Americans feel they get healthy sleep either every night or every other night. Our nation’s lack of healthy sleep is reflected by our use of sleep medications. Forty-nine million prescriptions for sleep medications were written in 2006(3). This was a 53% increase over the previous five years. The leading sleep drug is Ambien which accounted for 60% of sleep prescriptions in 2006, or $2,800,000,000 (2.8 billion) in sales. In 2006 drug companies spent $600,000,000 on advertising. The primary focus of all the advertising has been “destigmatizing sleeping pill use”.

Our sleeplessness is usually stress related, yet our modern environment also discourages sleep.

Artificial light and man made technologies give us many reasons to stay awake at night. Remember that for most of mankind’s history the darkness of night put a real damper on staying awake to the wee hours. Our grandparents slept 1 1/2 hours more than we do each night according to Dr. Christopher Gillin, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of San Diego. He reports that one in three Americans complain of a bout of insomnia within the past year, and one in six consider their insomnia serious.

Thomas Edison himself, inventor of the electric light bulb, believed that too much sleep was a bad thing. “The person who sleeps eight or ten hours a night is never fully asleep and never fully awake-he has only different degrees of doze through the 24 hours”, said Edison. He felt that people got twice as much sleep as needed. Excess sleep caused them to be “unhealthy and inefficient”.

While Edison is known to have frequently slept only four hours a night, it is reported that he also took frequent daytime naps. His total sleep time seems to have been close to 8 hours each 24 hours. Given Edison’s personal philosophy it follows that he invented the electric light bulb. No single invention has so disrupted the human sleep cycle as electric lights.

The rhythm of healthy sleep and our biological clock

Our biological clock keeps time for our body’s natural rhythm of sleep and awakening. It sets the timing of healthy sleep. Our body’s clock can be upset by artificial light. Our body follows the day-night cycle by registering light through the eyes. This daily rhythm is called the circadian rhythm.

Circadian is defined as “A daily cycle of biological activity based on a 24-hour period and influenced by regular variations in the environment, such as the alternation of night and day. Circadian rhythms include sleeping and waking in animals, flower closing and opening in angiosperms, and tissue growth and differentiation in fungi”.

The darkness of night stimulates our brain to release melatonin, the body’s sleep hormone. Melatonin helps to induce sleep. Artificial lighting lowers melatonin secretion and can interfere with our ability to get to sleep.

The downside of our 24/7 Society

When our ancestors “burned the mid night oil” the light’s intensity (from candles, fires and oil lamps) was not enough to disrupt our body’s circadian rhythm. Light intensity is measured in luxes. One lux is the amount of light given off by one candle. Researchers have shown that just 180 lux can reset or disrupt our biological clock.

A 100 watt bulb at 10 feet distance emits 190 lux, which is enough to reset your biological clock. Candles, oil lamps and fires fail to do so. With darkness our eyes register less light. This signals our brain to release melatonin, the body’s sleep hormone. Melatonin levels rise higher at night and drop in the daytime, all in response to the light coming into our eyes. This is how mankind experienced the day-night cycle for 1000’s of years. A glaring bright light at midnight tells your body that the sun is shining and as a result your brain lowers melatonin levels. This disruption of melatonin can impact your sleep cycle.

Melatonin has been shown to have many health benefits of its own. Lowering its levels in the body may impact health in more ways than just sleep. In our modern society we are exposed to lot’s of stress and 24/7 activity. The combination of the two is seriously affecting our sleep. For most of us, our sleep is no longer healthy.