Are you sleep deprived?

By Tommy Pallett

Summative season, dissertations due, vital sports fixtures… or were you in ‘Kiss Me Kate’? Whatever fills your time one thing is for sure—there’s not enough of it. Work becomes the ventures of the late night, focus drifts and your schedule becomes 5 minutes work, 1 minute Facebook. Experts agree on some remedies: meditation helps with focus, caffeine improves alertness and memory retention (after a work stint), and the latest craze is brain training—though they aren’t so sure about that one so it may just be a form of procrastination. Top of this list however is the most obvious of answers: sleep. Sleep deprivation leads to a “lapse of attention, slowed working memory, reduced cognitive throughput, depressed mood, and perseveration of thought”, according to a recent article from the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. Most of us will reassure ourselves at this point: whilst we sometimes don’t get enough sleep we’re certainly not “sleep deprived”. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Studies have shown that less than seven hours of sleep per night for around two weeks has the same consequences as total sleep deprivation for three to four nights.

However, it is not just a lack of sleep that leads to deprivation; a number of factors contribute to the quality of sleep. Your body is regulated by circadian rhythms, which act as a body clock with a periodicity of approximately 24 hours. This is incredibly important, least not for coordinating when and for how long you sleep. Recent work concludes that the deepest sleep a person can achieve will occur at around 2 am, so sleep quality will drastically improve if you are asleep before then.

Another, slightly more obscure, factor is bedroom hygiene. Colin Espie, professor of sleep medicine at Oxford University is leading a ground-breaking study into 32,000 British pupils who will be given ‘sleep education’ to try and improve performance. This should also be addressed by University populations; in such an environment, saving time and money is priority: keeping windows closed to save on heating bills, drying laundry in college rooms so as not to spend on tumble dryers and eating dinner at your bedroom desk because your deadline is at 9 am are all the norm. The consequences on sleep health are dire. Poor ventilation especially, leads to changes in the composition of air: nitrogen levels go up, oxygen down, and continually inhaling this recycled air leads to lower quality sleep and even waking up with headaches. Such things occur regularly enough through other causes without adding to them.

Aside from choosing to stay up, what about when you simply cannot get to sleep. You toss and turn, frustration rises. You were finally trying to recover some of that sleep-debt and you’re stuck, incapable of entering bliss. But what if you brought that on yourself? And what if there was a solution? The answer could lie in the technology giant Apple.

E-readers are one of the worst culprits: many millions traditionally read before going to bed, as a way of winding down. No. The opposite was occurring all along. Smartphones, E-readers, and laptops all strive to deliver visual optimisation, and to do this, screen light output was shifted towards the high frequency (blue) end of the visible spectrum. Whilst this is fantastic during the day, it has an unusual physiological effect on your body towards the evening. Blue light when interpreted by the brain, suppresses the hormone melatonin, which normally acts to regulate sleep—essentially it helps us ‘drift off’. Thus, suppressing this chemical increases our alertness, keeps us awake, and severely disrupts the body’s circadian rhythms: technology in the bedroom leads to insomnia.

The good old days of a paper book and a conventional lamp

Insomnia is bad news all round. A paper released on the 1st January this year links insomnia with an increased risk of severe mental illness in student populations. In a world where mental illness plagues such populations, improving sleep amount and quality could be highly beneficial. Apple has seemingly taken note of this problem (a caring move for the business world), and the new iOS 9.3 update will include a ‘night shift’ mode. This shifts the light emission spectrum away from the damaging blue and down into the yellow-orange range, within frequencies that do not suppress melatonin. The setting can be automatic, with the shift synchronised to the local sunset using geolocation technology. It’s a step in the right direction, which other products (like the classic Kindle with no backlight, or the screen filter software f.lux) have already adopted. While the technology catches up, maybe we should look to Espie’s sleep education programme, control our screen-time or, failing that, return to the good old days of a paper book and a conventional lamp to help you drift off to sleep.

Photograph: via Flickr

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