We fall asleep, we lose contact with the outside world and enter the realm of dreams.
That is, if we are lucky.
Going to sleep is not a simple process and has grown problematic in recent years.
How fortunate are those who can lay their heads on their pillows and within seconds they are off to Lalaland. They are absolutely in the minority. Increasingly we are finding it harder and harder to sleep. We are a population sleeping less than ever before.
Over the past five decades our average sleep duration has decreased by 90 minutes. Eight and half hours have become seven hours. Between 31 per cent to 50 per cent of people report sleeping six hours or less.
It is not just a trend for the adult world. Australian sleep-researcher Lisa Matricciani studied the available data for children from 1905 to 2008 and found that children have lost nearly a minute of sleep every year. Figure it out, it is many minutes.
Seniors also tend to sleep less with age, as the body produces lower levels of melatonin, but no matter your age, sleeping well is essential to your physical health and emotional well-being.
What are we to do about it? Scientific research is slow and tardy about discovering cause and effect, but still no cure other than pharmaceutical aids.
Elisabeth Klerman of Brigham University tracked multiple individual differences in our environment that affect our circadian rhythms in our ability to fall asleep easily and soundly. Of course we are different, no research is needed for that, but her conclusion after a lengthy study is that there is a wide array of factors that determine how quickly you will be able to drift off to sleep. Each of the various factors effects the ability to fall asleep. Of course it does, but what to do?
Part of how easily we go to sleep is genetic. That is news.
Many sleep disturbances ranging from insomnia to circadian disruption have a large genetic component, according to neurobiologist Dragena Rogulja who studies the transition of wakefulness to sleep in the fruit fly. In the fruit fly? Yes. We seldom see them. They seldom see us.
Yet, they believe sleep patterns in the fruit fly are remarkably similar to those in humans. One specific mutation in the flies’ genes can lead to “a sleep imitation deficit”.
Scientists need to isolate that gene and track its mechanism of action through the flies bodies and brains which may bring us a step further to understanding how similar deficits operate in human species. Geneticists are having fun with fire flies.
How often have you seen a fruit fly? Even if they do succeed after many a moon, it is a mute point since our genes have not changed in the past century. Genetic disposition cannot explain why so many of us have trouble sleeping.
We need to get serious, even if science does not. We need sleep.
What we already know is that there exists a sleep hygiene that most of us are familiar with. They are basically the same as good health practice. Avoid nicotine, caffeine, alcohol, and exercise help falling asleep faster. Stick to a sleep schedule.
Any variability detracts from sleep ability.
That sounds rather unfair. What about weekends, special events, fiestas? We are not robots, there must be more. What causes this epidemic of sleeplessness?
It is light. Yes, “let there be light” but not artificial light that has been more pervasive during the last century.
Humans have evolved to be exquisitely sensitive to the slightest change in the light around us. There are specific receptors in the eye that only respond to changes in light and dark, which are used almost exclusively to regulate our circadian rhythms. They work even among blind people, like internal body clocks. Harvard neurologist Steven Lockley complains, “Our clocks have revolved to anticipate tomorrow. Now, however, that natural prediction system is constantly wrong-footed.”
Increasingly we are surrounded by artificial light on the short wave or blue light spectrum — light which our circadian systems interpret as daylight.
Blue light emanates from our computers, TV, phones or other electronic devices.
When we spend time with a blue light-emitting device we are in essence postponing the signal that tells us “it’s bedtime.”
Charles Czeisler, specialist of circadian disorder, cries: “What have we done with our dusk?” A cry heard around the world. We have lost those precious 30 minutes of pinkish-peachy hues of the horizon when the sun is six degrees below the horizon in the evening, as it is six degrees below the horizon in the morning.
Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. They hear the cannon boom, or watch their TV to find out.
Can we do without tis artificial light that we so much depend on?
Therefore, we are left with the old-fashioned habit of going to bed when we feel sleepy and not a minute later.
“Sleeping is no mean art. For its sake one must stay awake all day.”
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.