Why Getting A Good Night's Sleep Is More Important Than Ever

By Rebecca Barry Hill
Global wakefulness is described as “the greatest public health challenge we face in the 21st century”. Photo / Getty Images

It’s about the size of a large freezer, just tall enough for me to sit up in comfortably. I hit a button and the door slides to a close. On the wall ahead, an iridescent beach scene pulses. There’s a no-smoking sign in this cocoon of a room, a throw-back to its original destination as a Japanese capsule hotel; pods such as these are now showing up in companies throughout Asia and the Google HQ to encourage napping at work.

When I lie back, the infrared memory-foam mattress warms me from head to toe, apparently boosting my collagen. I put on a black silk eye-mask and headphones and succumb to the sound of waves crashing, a mellow voice instructing me to breathe deeply and relaaaaax.

This Star Trek-ish "SleepPod" is one of two at the new SleepDrops Sleep and Wellness Centre in Wairau Park, offering anyone in need of time out ample calming encouragement. The centre's serene, Eastern-inspired interior adjoins a large factory where its eponymous top-selling supplement is produced. There's a yoga and meditation area, a kinesiology space and rooms where specialists offer investigations into your sleep woes.

The centre is the brainchild of SleepDrops inventor Kirsten Taylor, a naturopath who calls sleep the foundation of healing, and whose blend is sold here and in the US, Hong Kong and Singapore. Over the years she’s helped cystic fibrosis sufferers, sleep-deprived mums and those undergoing cancer treatment improve their shut-eye, but she was motivated to set up the centre when she realised the extent of sleeplessness in the wider community.

In the 2017/18 New Zealand Health Survey, 31 per cent of respondents said they didn’t catch the recommended zzzs for their age group. A recent Nielsen study reveals that 1.12 million Kiwis (29 per cent of the population) are concerned about sleep disorders and about half that number are concerned about their family’s sleep. Up to 47 per cent of Kiwis at any one time have trouble sleeping.

THESE NZ STATISTICS are on a par with global wakefulness, an epidemic Dr Matthew Walker a Californian neuroscientist calls "the greatest public health challenge we face in the 21st century". In his 2017 book Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, Walker points out that we humans are the only species to sell ourselves short on sleep for no apparent reason (although breastfeeding mums might beg to differ).

Among those of us desperate to get more rest are sleep apnoea sufferers, their numbers increasing alongside rising obesity levels. This serious disorder is most likely to affect middle-aged men, whereas women are more likely to experience insomnia as a result of anxiety.

Not prioritising sleep is another explanation. In the last 70 years, we’ve lopped an average of 13 per cent off our nightly sleep time.

STRESS IS ALSO to blame, with some going so far as to call sleep a luxury for those who don't have to work multiple jobs. "We're living faster, demanding more from our reality, wanting more meaningful careers and satisfaction levels," says Kirsten. "There's so much pressure from our work and families."

Depleting magnesium levels in our soil and produce due to modern agricultural methods makes modern consumers more susceptible to sleep issues, Kirsten reckons. Other triggers are illness, surgery, a major life situation anything that loads demand on the nervous system.

Where once we conked out easily and stayed that way until the wee hours, we could suddenly find ourselves tossing and turning, sometimes then struggling for months on end, in an existence that Kirsten says “slowly robs people of their joy”.

Naturally, a global industry has risen from our collective insomnia. The sleep aids market is growing by 7 per cent a year globally. Along with superfoods, self-care and natural products, internet searches for “clean sleeping” have increased by 116 per cent, spurred along by wellness arbiters Arianna Huffington, (author of The Sleep Revolution) and Gwyneth Paltrow, whose Goop website recommends no caffeine after 2pm, finishing that Netflix on your iPad an hour before bed, and um, using a copper pillow.

Plenty of tired parents (including yours truly) have enlisted the help of baby sleep consultants; now chronically tired Europeans and Americans are shelling out up to $10,000 a day to see a personal sleep coach. The tourism industry is offering “mumcations” (check out the Sleep Whisperer Yoga Retreat at Portugal’s Vale de Moses) with sleep workshops and ample kip time on the itinerary.

In the city that never sleeps, growing numbers of New Yorkers are heading home early, much like top athletes LeBron James and Roger Federer, who aim for 10-12 hours of sleep a night. Even the tech sector, whose products we’ve typically been encouraged to remove from the bedroom, is catering to the under-slept, with apps and smart mattresses that feed back sleep vitals, masks that vibrate to help curb snoring and even motion-sensing pillows, with airbags that inflate when your head isn’t resting in optimal position.

Abbey wears Laing cotton pajama shot set $215. Fiorrucci t-shirt $90. Papinelle silk eye mask $43. Photo / Babiche Martens
Abbey wears Laing cotton pajama shot set $215. Fiorrucci t-shirt $90. Papinelle silk eye mask $43. Photo / Babiche Martens

BEAUTY BRANDS ARE jumping on the trend too, introducing serums designed to work on our resting skin overnight, or "sleep soaps" and aromachology products to help us relax although how these differ from your traditional lavender scents is open to interpretation. In other words, the $4.3 trillion wellness industry is finally taking sleep seriously.

That we need gadgets and personal consultants might seem ridiculous for something we’ve been doing since the womb, but it shows the extent to which modern life is altering our natural rhythms.

Clinical psychologist Alex Mortlock from the nationwide Sleep Well Clinic has noticed a significant increase in patients seeking help. Often it’s a case of guiding patients into a new routine, or using cognitive behavioural therapy to change sleep habits. The biggest culprit he says, is our use of devices, particularly young people who stay up late on their phones. Blue light from devices delays the brain’s onset of melatonin, making it harder for digital night owls to fall asleep.

Still, he’s not convinced we’re more stressed than we used to be.

“There’s that idea that we work more than we used to and we’re more stressed. Do we though or have we always been stressed and just not talked about it?”

ALTHOUGH IT'S GOOD that more people are starting to prioritise sleep, we need to be cautious we're not creating "the hypothetical ideal", he warns. Adding anxiety or guilt to the list isn't going to help us get more shut-eye, after all. So why should we have to care that we're not quite cracking the exact recommended baseline of slumber?

You get a better picture of what sleep does for you when you look at the effects of a lack of it, says Dr Matthew Walker, who stresses that consistently getting 7-8 hours a night (recommended for adults aged 18 to 64) is the best health insurance policy available. Too little makes us put on weight, as we look for alternatives to fuel our energy, or leads to a depressed mood. In summer, when daylight savings forces us out of bed an hour early, there’s a 24 per cent increase in heart attacks the next day; this figure is almost reversed the opposite season.

SLEEPING ALLOWS our immune system to fight disease, and the brain to clear out toxins, the accumulation of which can lead to Alzheimer's, a disease that both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan who both (in)famously slept 4-5 hours of sleep a night ended up with. The World Health Organisation refers to night shift work as a "carcinogen".

“If you look at cavemen, they were acutely aware of danger,” says Kirsten. “Biologically, if sleep wasn’t vital to our recovery, why would we make ourselves vulnerable every night?”

On the plus side, sleeping allows our brains to hit the “save” button on memories, improves our overall performance and makes us look better. Getting our beauty sleep makes more sense when you consider that our appearance is really just a barometer of health.

A 2017 study from the Royal Society Open Science Journal confirms what serial Tinder daters already know: just two days of restricted sleep affects our perceived attractiveness levels. It also causes our stress hormone, cortisol, to climb, explains The Face Place’s Dr Cat Stone. This can lead to ageing and increased oil production. High cortisol also redistributes blood away from the skin, stimulates fat accumulation around the belly and leaches the copper pigments from hair, leading to greys. Great!

Most skincare products will work whether they’re applied during the day or night, Dr Cat says, but some actives such as Vitamin A or retinol are best applied before bed, as Vitamin A is destroyed by light.

Because blood flows to our skin and collagen during rest, this is a time we are receptive to products.

“A good sleep overnight gives your skin a break from environmental damage such as UV exposure and air conditioning,” she says, “so it’s a good time to replace antioxidants that can be lost by day.”

IT'S UNDOUBTEDLY wise to seek medical help if sleeplessness is prolonged, conventional treatments often involve the administration of sleeping pills, and while these can be an effective short-term solution, they can have serious side effects if taken long-term. Nor do they get to the bottom of the issue or provide the deep, restorative sleep we need, says Kirsten Taylor. She has been working with GPs who she says are growing frustrated and disillusioned by their limited resources to help the sleep-deprived.

“You can generally pinpoint the reason someone isn’t sleeping well,” says Dr Estelle de Beer, a naturopathic doctor at the Sleep and Wellness clinic who looks into patients’ medical history, hormonal health, lifestyle and diet to determine a cause. Often, that cause is chronic stress, a condition that can result in sleep-fighting hormones and lead to that all-too-familiar 3am worry wake. She says it’s vital our bedrooms are comfortable “sleep havens”, free of clutter and devices.

Meanwhile the Sleep Well Clinic’s Alex Mortlock recommends routines that value consistency, most importantly a regular wake time, and getting time outdoors in daylight every day, because light exposure drives our circadian rhythm.

Dr Walker advises people to cut down on alcohol and caffeine: the former blocks REM sleep, the latter has a quarter life of 12 hours (so that midday coffee is still swirling around in your brain at bedtime). Many experts also suggest black-out blinds or curtains, writing in a journal before bed to download any worries, meditating, and ensuring our rooms are cool, as our core body temperature needs to drop to sleep.

But for those of us needing a little extra, smart bedrooms are the future of sleep, according to several sleep trade-shows popping up around the globe. Maybe all that’s between you and a restful night is a bed that rocks automatically, a sleep sensing pad, or a strap that slowly pulses against your wrist, encouraging your brainwaves to do the same.

Or maybe your mum was right all along: you just need an early night and you’ll be right as rain in the morning.

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