Evenings are something of a rush for Megan Hobbs. The 29-year-old solicitor doesn't finish work until 6.30pm and it takes her 45 minutes to travel home to the flat she shares with her boyfriend.
“I go to Pret a Manger or somewhere about 5pm and grab a soup and a sandwich to eat at my desk,” she says. “Otherwise, there’s no way I can get to bed by 8.30pm. I’d rather eat at home, but I can’t sleep on a full stomach.”
It takes a lot of work and organisation for Hobbs to get what she describes as “the right amount” of sleep. For her, a late night is getting into bed at 9.30pm; by that time, she admits to feeling “stressed”.
On a good night, she keeps her room cool, quiet and dark and usually switches off her phone by 8pm. There’s a pricey milkshake containing hops to be consumed before bed, and a magnesium-infused sleep-aid spray she uses on her wrists and neck. For the past year, Hobbs has also worn a fitness tracker in bed to analyse the amount and quality of her sleep.
“Before I got this device, I was only getting about seven hours of rest per night. It’s shown me I need to be in bed for 10 hours to achieve enough restorative deep sleep – any less and I feel grumpy.” She admits her relationship with her partner and her friendships have suffered, but Hobbs doesn’t think she’s fetishising sleep. “I choose to prioritise my health.”
Lack of sleep
Writer Lucy Dunne, (31), tells a similar story. She says her husband thinks she's "crazy" for going to bed at nine every night instead of sitting up with him and watching television together.
Another 34-year-old woman tells me she is concerned about ever having a baby, because of the lack of sleep. “I’m used to getting nine to 10 hours a night now,” she explains. “I know I’d feel rubbish getting much less.”
The quantity – and quality – of sleep we get has been eroded over the past few decades, due almost exclusively to the increasingly frantic pace at which we live our lives. The internet, social media and technology that enables us to be available 24/7 means most of us are desperate for more hours in the day; and for many, it’s sleep that gets sacrificed.
The research into the consequences of long-term sleep deprivation makes alarming reading.
While sleeping between seven and nine hours a night has been recommended by the World Health Organisation and ratified by the US's Centers for Disease Control (CDC), a recent study of 1,000 adults in Ireland, commissioned by Ikea and carried out by "sleep consultant" Lucy Wolfe, found that one-third of adults are getting by on less than six hours a night.
A 2013 study by the National Sleep Foundation (an American education and advocacy group) showed that the average adult in the UK is getting by on 6 hours 49 minutes of sleep per night in the week. People in Japan and the US fared even worse, on 6 hours 22 minutes and 6 hours 31 minutes respectively. Meanwhile, the Chinese are the world's best sleepers, achieving a little more than nine hours on average.
Life or death
Many researchers believe that enough sleep is quite simply the difference between life or early death. More than 20 large-scale epidemiological studies reported the same clear relationship: the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life.
In reaction to this, Hobbs, Dunne et al are part of a growing band of young people – mostly millennial and, anecdotally, women – who observe a night-time regime of going to bed extremely early. Aided by data mostly gleaned from fitness trackers, these people focus on achieving “clean sleep” – often to the detriment of their social lives and relationships – because they believe it will make them look and feel more healthy, and be more productive at work.
The term clean sleeping was coined by Gwyneth Paltrow (who else?), who in 2016 announced that she gets between seven and eight hours of "good-quality sleep" each night, "ideally 10". "The lifestyle I lead is based not just on clean eating, but also on clean sleeping," she said. "It goes without saying that poor sleep is terrible from a beauty perspective."
More recently, the hit 2017 book Why We Sleep propelled its author, the sleep scientist Matthew Walker, into the (terrifying) headlines. Walker argues that "a chronic lack of sleep is one of the biggest public health challenges we face in the 21st century". There is almost no health condition that couldn't be improved by more shuteye, he writes: it will boost your career, intelligence and your looks, improve your immune system, aid weight management and improve your cardiovascular health.
It’s no wonder a good night’s sleep has evolved into the new status symbol. While bragging rights used to be attached to being a member of the macho “sleepless elite” – think Margaret Thatcher’s four hours a night and fashion designer Tom Ford’s purported three – today the wealthy and privileged boast about being well-slept. It’s a lifestyle encouraged by the Silicon Valley set, many of whom are spending millions of dollars – and hours – designing data-capturing devices to help people quantify how much rest they are getting (and, ironically, missing out on rest themselves to do it).
Being able to prioritise sleep over a neverending night-time to-do list, anxieties about finances or workaday stresses is a luxury it seems money can buy. Almost overnight, the most basic of human functions has become aspirational. Researchers have even come up with a term to describe this obsession with sleep: “Orthosomnia.”
In the past two years, fitness trackers and quantitative self programmes have really increased awareness. That's both a good thing and a bad thing
Aided by technology and encouraged by big business, sleep is becoming something we feel we can control.
Luke Sherwin is chief creative officer at hip American bed company Casper. He says the company has seen a growing awareness of the importance of sleep among their consumers. "In the past two years, fitness trackers and quantitative self programmes have really increased awareness," he says. "That's both a good thing and a bad thing. We did a bunch of behavioural research a year ago and one of the main things that came up was a big anxiety around sleep. That was a key problem for people."
But isn’t the notion of “good” sleep subjective? Restorative levels are almost impossible to quantify outside a laboratory with the capability to analyse brain waves.
Nevertheless, helping people to sleep better has become a multibillion-pound industry.
Forecasters predict the global market for at-home tech products (body-responsive mattresses, temperature-regulating bedding and pyjamas, smart lighting) will be worth more than £55bn by next year. Practically every wellness brand has a sleep-aid product, from diets to lavender pillow sprays and melatonin-infused waters, bedtime teas to soporific milkshakes, scented candles to magnesium bath soaks. Then there’s the cost of sleep aids to the NHS and private sleep clinics, as well as prescription medications.
On the telephone from his sleep clinic in Berkeley, California, Walker sounds as if he is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. The sleep scientist has called for a public awareness campaign to encourage people to sleep more, and even for sleep to be "prescribed" and treated like a preventative medicine. Just one week of reduced sleep, he writes, alters your DNA.
“The genes that are changed are the ones associated with cardiovascular disease, stress, chronic inflammation and cancer tumours,” he tells me. “Just one week of short sleep – five or six hours every night – would tip someone’s previously normal blood sugar levels into the pre-diabetic zone. Mother nature took about 3.6m years to put this thing called eight hours of sleep in place and within the space of 70 or 80 years, through modernity and the industrial revolution, we have lopped off almost 20%. How could we not imagine that there would be catastrophic health, disease and neural consequences to that?” he asks, sounding slightly panicked himself.
He describes a University of Colorado study in which cardiologists found a 25% increase in the number of heart attacks in spring, when we lose an hour’s sleep, but a 21% decrease in autumn, when we gain an hour. “There is a global experiment that is performed on 1.6bn people across 70 countries twice a year and it’s called daylight saving time,” he says. “I think that emphasises how fragile and vulnerable and dependent on sleep our bodies are.”
Does he worry that the attention given to how much or little we sleep causes anxiety? “I give talks, I do radio and television, and when I get emails from people saying: ‘I heard you on the radio and I struggle with sleep and now I am more concerned than ever,’ I realise that perhaps what I’ve done is in part escalate the problem. I do write back to them and give them the resources to hopefully help their problem. But I struggle with that. I think I am still errorful in how I surf that line, between giving the hard science and ensuring I don’t upset people too much.”
At the London Sleep Centre on Harley Street, Petra Hawker’s client list is growing. Over the past five years, the sleep psychotherapist has seen a huge rise in young people suffering anxiety issues around getting enough sleep. She says a large part of the problem is the – not unfounded – notion that sleep is a preventative medicine and a fundamental part of a healthy lifestyle.
“People should make positive steps towards a healthy amount of sleep each night,” she says, “but sleep is not something you can completely control. Once the mind gets involved, it affects the actual process.” Too much sleep data, she argues, is putting people into a state of high anxiety. The best thing to do is relax and let it happen. “Ultimately, it comes down to commercialism – companies are monitoring sleep as a business proposition. It means they can sell you things.”
Take the Sleep Council in the UK, a body that calls itself "an impartial, advisory organisation that raises the awareness [SIC]of the importance of a good night's sleep to health and wellbeing". The organisation commissions surveys and issues information on how well – or poorly – we sleep. It recommends a sensible bedtime and a comfortable bed as "key to sleeping well". Sound advice, but bear in mind that the Sleep Council is the consumer education arm of the National Bed Federation, the trade association for British bed manufacturers. Unsurprisingly, it also recommends that we change our mattress every seven years to help us sleep better – and to help it sell more mattresses.
Deep Rest sessions
In New York, at fashionable meditation centre Inscape in the shadow of the Flatiron building, the worried and weary pay for Deep Rest sessions ($25 for 45 minutes). At one of their in-demand events on a Sunday night, I lie in a purple-hued room called the Alcove with 10 or so other people, after being anointed with fragrant calming oil. I listen to the melodic, rhythmic tones of an Australian woman over the speakers, telling me to relax and how to breathe. While the class doesn’t teach sleep, it aims to help the body unwind and become less aware (in this way it differs from meditation, where one is meant to maintain awareness). An Inscape facilitator is present to wake people if they start snoring and disturb others.
The session is enjoyable and relaxing, but there is something strange about lying in a room of strangers, trying to rest. Many are regulars; one attends whenever she can. “I travel a lot for work and I’m concerned that disrupting my sleep will have negative consequences on my health,” she explains. “I’m desperate to redress the balance.”
Saying, 'A lack of sleep is going to kill you' is a good headline, but there's not a whole lot of evidence for that
Dr Neil Stanley is a sleep expert who has been researching the field for more than 35 years. He also believes orthosomnia is a money-making proposition for big businesses. "Essentially, people want to make you anxious to sell products, devices, books," he says. "Saying, 'A lack of sleep is going to kill you' is a good headline, but there's not a whole lot of evidence for that. We are being sold a dream that we can be in control of our sleep. It's a fairytale. But no one's going to make money out of telling you to listen to your body."
Acupuncturist Mia Kawada agrees. She says she is seeing increasing numbers of women using sleep trackers and then reporting problems with their sleep. "It's good that people are taking responsibility," she says. "But with every machine or gadget comes a tendency to rely on what the data says, instead of what your body is telling you. You start to care more about what the app says than how you feel."
Kawada says one of her patients was anxious because her tracker had been telling her she wasn’t getting enough deep sleep, even though she had gone to bed at 10.30pm. “When I asked her how she was feeling during the day, she admitted that she didn’t feel tired,” Kawada says, “but the statistics were clearly stressing her out. It’s a little counterproductive.
“We live in an age where we think having more information is empowering. But the more information we have, the more we feel the need to control things we have been doing automatically for millennia. By trying to exert this control, we lose the connection with our own bodies.”
"I'm in bed by nine every night, even at weekends,' says 27-year-old Jane Clarke, an executive assistant from York who has become attached to the Apple Watch she received for Christmas in 2016. "I get up at 6.30am. It's stressful to find time to get enough sleep. I rarely go out in the week and only see my boyfriend at the weekend. But I believe it's good for my health to keep this routine. I never get colds."
Petra Hawker believes that seeing friends and connecting with others is just as important to your health as sleep. "People shouldn't be coming home from work and going to bed at 8.30pm unless they have to get up extraordinarily early. These routines mean people struggle to fit the things they need to do into their day, leading to more stress."
If you wake up and you are too sleepy to drive to Edinburgh, don't drive to Edinburgh. It doesn't really matter what a watch says
Neil Stanley adds that the science around sleep trackers is not great. "They can't measure deep sleep or dreaming sleep. They only measure movement, which gives no information about what's happening in the brain – and that's the important place. People are using this information to diagnose themselves with a sleep problem or determine that they need more sleep. It's concerning. This whole 'observed self' lifestyle is pretty pointless. If you wake up and you are too sleepy to drive to Edinburgh, don't drive to Edinburgh. It doesn't really matter what a watch says. If you are awake, alert and focused during the day you have had enough sleep. It's as simple as that. Go to bed when you are sleepy."
Walker believes that in the next two to four years, the technology around apps and trackers will become more accurate. “What I would say is, ignorance is not bliss in this case,” he says. “The approach can’t be to say: ‘Don’t tell all those people about the problems that come from not getting enough sleep,’ because that does those people a disservice. We need to tell them the hard facts, but figure out a way of dissipating the anxiety.”
That may be easier said than done, however. Graphic designer Mari Wright says she has consigned her fitness tracker to the drawer after becoming "obsessed" with monitoring her health on it. "I was a signed-up clean sleeper," she says, "but to get to bed early I ate ready meals, which was probably counterproductive. No matter what I did, I was regularly measuring six hours or so of sleep on the device and I talked about it every day. Eventually, my sister told me to stop it. I do miss it, but I can't say I feel much different. If anything, I sleep more."
Petra Hawker’s tips for a good night’s sleep
1) Wind down for an hour before bed. Go into a room that is comfortable, write down any problems you have or things you need to do. Don't go on your phone or a screen – blue light from these devices affects the production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep. Deep breathing and yogic exercises will reduce adrenaline levels.
2) Keep the bedroom cool, dark and quiet; these are biological indicators to the body that it's time to sleep.
3) Don't use the bed as a workspace or somewhere to watch TV. The brain needs to learn that the bed is for sleeping in, not for lying in without sleep.
4) The brain likes routine. If you do the same thing every night, it will fall into a pattern.