“I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” – Why Our Sleeping Habits Need to Change

Do you get enough sleep? A study released in 2017 found that a quarter of Canadians get less than 7 hours of sleep per day, and that this costs the Canadian economy $21 billion in lost time at work. Even more injurious are the effects that loss of sleep has on the health of Canadians.

We decided to research how sleep has been approached throughout history, and how culture and scientific understanding has changed our sleeping habits.

Harvard University released a study of the history of sleep that takes us back to 600BC. Then, a segmented sleep was common. Two periods of wakefulness alternated with two shifts of sleep per 24 hours was culturally normal in ancient Greece.

This changed in 16th century Europe when a French man named Jean-Jacques d’Ortous deMairan discovered the biological rhythm of plants. He is now considered the first to study circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms are the roughly 24-hour physiological process of living beings. Originating internally, it can also be modified by external factors like sunlight and temperature.

Thomas Edison’s invention of the light bulb in 1879 has been found to have an incredible impact on society’s sleeping habits. Harvard University estimates that the average American sleeps 3 hours less per day now than the average American before Edison’s invention.

In the 1950s, sleep was studied even more intensely, and the discovery of REM sleep cycles was made. REM stands for “Rapid Eye Movement”, and this stage of sleep is considered the most important. Humans typically go into REM sleep cycles multiple times per night. This stage of sleep is also associated with dreaming. REM sleep is biologically necessary, and, if we do not get enough, can result in increased anxiety, irritability, appetite, and difficulty concentrating.

In 1980, a man named Alfred Lewy demonstrated that exposure to artificial light can suppress melatonin secretion in humans. Melatonin is the hormone released by our brains that tell us when to sleep and when to wake up. Artificial light can disrupt our circadian cycle and cause a loss of REM sleep.

So how can we get enough sleep? While some of us cannot simply take an extra few hours to stay in bed, we can change our habits to make sure we get the most out of the shut-eye time we do have. The biggest barrier to restful REM sleep and normal circadian cycles is artificial light. Your phone and computer screen have particularly bright lights and can signal your brain to disrupt your melatonin secretion. Experts suggest that we close our screen at least half an hour before we try to sleep.

Another leading cause of sleep disruption is temperature. Your body naturally cools down as you sleep and trying to sleep in a room that’s too warm can trick you body into thinking it’s time to wake up. Keeping your bedroom cool, and having a breathable cover and sheets, can help keep your circadian cycle on track.

Another way to train your brain to sleep fully and properly is to avoid using your bed for anything else but sleeping. We are creatures of habit, and easily form associations between spaces and activities. If we make a habit of watching TV, eating, or studying in our beds, our brains associate that space with wakefulness. Instead, try to keep your bed for sleeping only, to allow your brain the ability to fully relax when it is time to sleep.

Above all, just remember: life is too short not to sleep when you feel like it!