Most developed societies in the West are currently plagued by endemic sleep loss, falling well short of the eight hours recommended by the World Health Organisation. In particular, many children and young people are currently suffering from sleeping problems. A recent BBC documentary went so far as to label this a “crisis”.
Our bodies and brains need a minimum of seven to eight hours each night to fully restore their physiological and neurological operations. If we don’t get the rest we need, we increase our risk of obesity, of diabetes, heart disease and dementia. Our brain and memory functions diminish as sleep escapes us, and there is an intimate link between a wide variety of mental health conditions and irregular or lost sleep.
Calculating the effects of sleep loss on individual health is just one way in which this sleep loss epidemic is being quantified. In the UK, healthcare professionals have traced a sharp spike in prescriptions for melatonin – a hormone located in the brain’s pineal gland that helps to regulate our daily sleep-wake cycles – among children and young adults in the last decade. They are now calculating the pressure that these health problems exert on the resources of the NHS.
A new sleep crisis. Africa Studio / Shutterstock.com
Meanwhile, governments, pharmaceutical companies, sleep researchers and multinational corporations estimate that billions of dollars, euros and pounds are lost each year due to sleep loss. This manifests in “absenteeism” from work, or in “presenteeism” – when workers are present but lack sufficient mental focus to perform their tasks effectively.
So what is to be done?
First, it is worth remembering that sleep “crises” are far from new. We find traces of them in many periods and places. Historical records show that large-scale shifts in bedtime routines and sleeping hours are often prompted by intensive phases of socioeconomic, technological and environmental change.
This kind of shift took place, for example, in early 18th-century London. Here, rapid socioeconomic shifts, processes of urbanisation that involved (among other things) the widespread introduction of street lights, and the emergence of new forms of sociability triggered myriad complaints about the “unnatural” sleeping habits that these changes were breeding.
Lighting through the ages. Wikimedia Commons