I will go to the gym twice a week! I will eat more dark green vegetables! I will cook more healthy meals instead of going out! Typical New Year’s resolutions as people strive to live healthier lives. But how many people had a version of this for their 2015 resolution: lights out at 10 p.m. so I can get 8 hours of sleep every single night! If you didn’t, it’s not too late to change it. Lauren Hale, an associate professor of preventive medicine in the Program in Public Health at Stony Brook University, wishes more people would. She’s the inaugural editor of the National Sleep Foundation’s new journal Sleep Health coming out in March, which will offer a social science perspective on sleep and health. Hale talked with Indow about the importance of sleep and how sleepless so many Americans are.
Q. Why launch Sleep Health now?
A. Sleeplessness has become more of a concern as we have become an increasingly 24/7 over-caffeinated culture. We’re becoming more urbanized with people living in more crowded, loud and well-lit spaces. All of these things interfere with sleep. Our use of electronic devices at bedtime is at an all-time high and will only get magnified by recent advances in technology.
Q. How is technology interfering with sleep?
A. There is so much access to screen-based technologies with an expectation that every adult, teenager and child has her own device. These screens are part of our bedroom environment and consequently it’s hurting our sleep. A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that using a light-emitting electronic device before bed negatively affects sleep quality and circadian rhythms.
Q. How is the health and wellness community responding?
A. Sleep is compromised in a huge swath of the population. The public health community is recognizing that sleep needs to be included in a prescription for healthy living. It’s not just about eating right and exercising but also making time for sleep. Health professionals are starting to ask patients, “How much sleep are you getting?”
Q. You have found that people in urban areas sleep less than those who live in rural or suburban areas. Why is that?
A. There are a range of factors that lead to impaired sleep: for example, more street lights and traffic noises as well more cultural and social activities could cut back on the amount of sleep people get in urban environments. Quality of sleep is also affected by light and noise. Typically, we think of the noise coming from outside, but it can also be indoor noise since more people are living with shared walls in apartments. In more disadvantaged urban neighborhoods, quality of sleep can be affected if people have fears about their safety or worries about how they’re going to pay next month’s rent.
Q. You have also talked about sleep as a social justice issue. Can you explain what that means?
A. Yes, when I talk about sleep as a social justice problem, I am not just referring to the standard concern that there are too many people not getting enough sleep. I also want to highlight the social patterning of sleep: the most socially disadvantaged persons are getting the worst sleep. This means that people with more education have better sleep quality and more appropriate sleep durations. Other factors such as marital status, employment status and mental health are also tied to sleep. The reason this is a social justice problem is that those who are at a disadvantage in one area, tend to be worse off in sleep too. And this creates a feedback loop of disadvantage.
Q. What is the most important thing people need to understand about sleep?
A. A restorative night’s sleep improves well being, productivity, interpersonal relationships and health so people should prioritize making smart choices about their sleep environment and their sleep timing to improve their sleep every single night.
Q. What concrete recommendations do you have for people struggling to get better sleep?
A. Here are Lauren Hale’s tips for better sleep:
- Stick to the same bedtime and wakeup time, even on weekends.
- Avoid naps, especially in the after noon.
- Exercise daily.
- Make your bedroom conducive to sleep: keep it cool, quiet and as dark as possible.
- Sleep on a comfortable mattress and pillow.
- Avoid bright lights in the evenings
- Avoid alcohol, cigarettes and heavy meals in the evening.
- Wind down before bed with a calming activity such as reading.
- Keep electronic devices out of the bedroom.