The data is now overwhelming. Eight hours of sleep each night is what humans need for optimal health and performance. Yet most of us don’t get it. What is the fix?
It turns out that eight hours of sleep does a host of beneficial things. Our DNA repair system works diligently during sleep, repairing the damage done by our exposure to toxins, sunlight, bad food, and worse behavior.
The learning mechanisms for storing new data and transferring that data from short-term memory to long-term storage occur during sleep and are interrupted when we sleep less than eight hours.
Most shockingly, in data presented by Dr. Mathew Walker from the Sleep Lab in Berkeley, testosterone is reduced significantly in people who get less than eight hours of sleep. This makes them function as a person a decade older. In experiments with animals as well, inadequate sleep means dramatically increased aging.
Mood, blood pressure, cognitive performance, and a host of other critical processes are optimized with the magic eight. The research by Walker and others has crystallized these findings so well that apprehension is now pervading our night shift-enabled world—a world where students, ER physicians, nurses, and night foreman are all expected to perform superbly while sleeping poorly.
If workers are required to alternate between night shifts and day shifts without sufficient adjustment time, and if pilots are expected to fly airplanes in and out of shifting time zones with reduced sleep hours, and if students are expected to be at school at 7 am after finishing their homework at 11 pm—all behaviors now proven to be harmful to their health—is this not a form of abuse? If so, it’s an abuse that hurts both the abuser (now deprived of the best performance results) and the victim (e.g., the employee, pilot, trainee, physician, or student).
What can we do about it? Drugs to induce or improve sleep actually inhibit the high-quality REM sleep known to be most effective for human optimization. Meditation may address a few of the symptoms, but not solve the problem. Melatonin and supplements may help regulate the sleep clock, but they do not compensate for the missing time.
Exercising to optimize your weight improves nighttime breathing, exhausts the muscles, and improves the quality of sleep. Avoiding alcohol and caffeine also removes impediments that interfere with your sleep cycles. Eliminating electronic screen time a few hours before sleep diminishes conflicting brain and body rhythms. Adjusting the time you take certain medications can also help avoid systemic interference with sleep.
It will require a fundamental remodeling of the educational systems and workforce to truly make a difference in the population’s ability to raise its personal and professional performance through better sleep. Educational institutions are the first and easiest place to start. They should clearly understand the science and see the benefits of teaching when students are alert, and retention is highest. Students and parents must reject early morning classes. Stand up and protest now!
Medical training programs should hire scribes and support staff with regular shifts to reduce the workload for key medical staff, many of whom are up at night. Safety records will improve. Otherwise, the dreaded lawyers may soon figure out that these institutions are exposing patients to unnecessary risk—and exposing the programs to liability.
Employers must design shifts so that employees stay on one time schedule for long periods, with sufficient time between shifts. Do this now—the quality of your products and services will improve. Labor laws and OSHA guidelines may soon be enforced to reflect this health and safety reality.
Sleep is the new health food. It is organic, biodegradable, recyclable, and allergen free. Free range humans are the ethical choice. Well-rested humans are happy – and happy humans make happiness universal.
Dr. Kevin R. Stone is an orthopedic surgeon at The Stone Clinic and chairman of the Stone Research Foundation in San Francisco.