It’s been the subject of a parliamentary inquiry, as well as decades of campaigning, and it’s been described as a national emergency.
Yet sleep is still not getting enough attention, argues Moira Junge, sleep disorder expert and CEO of the Sleep Health Foundation.
Dr Junge wants sleep to be treated as a community health priority – as a matter of urgency.
Sleep health is a key indicator of overall health, she says, and so it should be “a national priority”.
There should be more talk about sleep “in schools, in workplaces [and in] family conversations around the table “, Dr Junge tells ABC RN’s Life Matters.
A 2018–19 parliamentary inquiry into sleep health determined that it was “a national emergency and recommend[ed] that the government prioritizes sleep health, ”she says.
“But then COVID hit and, of course, both state and federal levels of governments – health departments, particularly – have been, rightly so, focused very much on keeping us safe from COVID.”
Now, Dr Junge says, “we’re really desperately wanting to actually get it back on the agenda.”
The ‘dangerous precipice’ of not getting enough sleep
Sleep was already a problem for Australians prior to the COVID pandemic. Since then, it’s taken a further hit, Dr Junge says.
“In Australia, as worldwide, we have seen detrimental effects to our sleep,” she says.
The sleep inquiry’s report found that roughly four in ten Australians aren’t getting enough quality sleep, due to either sleep disorders or to work and lifestyle pressures.
It also said regular inadequate sleep is associated with an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
US sleep expert Matthew Walker agrees the sleep problem is growing.
The professor of neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of Why We Sleep, says not only is general sleep health in bad shape, figures for the most common sleep disorder, insomnia, “seem to be on the rise.”
It’s an increase he says is largely attributable to lifestyle factors.
Higher levels of anxiety and stress equate to a higher risk of insomnia. Other “aspects of modernity” such as “excessive exposure to too much caffeine, too much alcohol in the evening” and “the invasion of technology into the bedroom” [which] has had a marked impact on our lack of sleep “also bring that increased risk.
Professor Walker says this is a concern because insomnia is associated with “a higher risk of stroke, heart attack, depression and… Alzheimer’s disease”.
“I don’t want to frighten people. I know these are scary statistics. But I think what this means is that there is hope here, because insomnia is a treatable condition,” he says.
Sleep’s ‘image problem’
Professor Walker says there’s a strange disconnect between the priority we attribute to the sleep of a child and the way we consider sleep as adults.
At that stage of life, he says “sleep has an image problem”.
“When you look at a child or a baby that’s sleeping during the day, no one looks at that baby and says, ‘Gosh, what a lazy baby’. We don’t do that because we know that sleep at that time of life is fundamentally important. It is non-negotiable. “
But somewhere between infancy and adulthood, “we abandon the notion that sleep is important. And if anything, we celebrate our lack thereof. It’s almost this sort of sleep machismo attitude, this braggadocio component. And that’s remarkably unwise,” Professor Walker says.
He also argues that we have forgotten how to fall asleep.
“Many of us hop into bed at night and we think that sleep should be like a light switch; that as soon as we jump into bed and our head hits the pillow, we should be out like a light.”
“Sleep is not like that as a biological process. Sleep is much more like trying to land a plane. It takes time for your biology and physiology to gradually descend down onto the terra firma of good sleep at night.”
And, just as with children, a wind down routine is “essential” for adults wanting to sleep better, he says.
Like Professor Walker, Dr Junge is keen not “to alarm people who are struggling with sleep”.
“But it’s very hard. It’s a tricky conversation to have because I do want the evidence out there.”
She’d like to see a national sleep health awareness campaign, as well as sleep education in schools and the curriculum, a sleep helpline and more training for health professionals about treating sleep problems.
She says helping people understand sleep solutions is as important as raising the problems associated with not getting enough.
“There are lots of very good treatments around,” Dr Junge says, pointing to the Sleep Health Foundation’s fact sheets.
And when it comes to getting sleep more prominently placed on the national agenda, she says, as with public health changes around smoking, sometimes you “have to play the long game”.
“I’ve been involved with health for a long time and I saw what we did with smoking. I would never have thought in the 1990s that we [would have] come so far with [things like] smoking is not allowed in public places. “
She remembers during her nursing career in the 1990s “people were smoking in hospitals. We were wheeling long-term patients down for a cigarette. And there was smoking on airplanes.”
“It seemed to change overnight, but it was decades of lobbying.”
Similarly, “mental health wasn’t recognized for a long time” as a health priority, she says.
‘Mental health wasn’t really talked about, but now it certainly is.
“I think we’re at the same precipice with bringing sleep health into all conversations around health and safety.”
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