Saturday, 28 February 2015

Dreaming of Sleep at 36,000ft

Dreaming of Sleep (Business Traveller magazine Oct 14) opens with a statement and a question "We all have ways of dealing with jet lag, but what are the long-term effects of sleep deprivation and how are travel companies trying to help?" It states a widely held belief about jet lag, and implies sleep deprivation equals jet lag. Sleep deprivation does not equal jet lag but it is a very important issue for frequent business fliers, on that we can agree. While the article makes interesting reading on account of the snapshot it gives about sleep, research and the business flier, to my mind the subject of frequent flying and sleep need to be looked at anew.

The article quotes a source which says HR departments of top companies now recognise the link between stress, sleep and productivity. This is a step in the right direction, however the more important question is how does this link become a challenge the individual wants to accept? Let's face it, most people's memory of being told when to go to sleep dates back to childhood and those days are long gone. Pulling all nighters to get the job done and not being able to sleep when you want to because of time change can become a way of life for intensive fliers. Because the effects of sleep deprivation are not always immediately apparent we tend to take our chances. In today’s world the distractions are endless and there is always a new justification to survive on less sleep. The times we live in say this is not about to change any time soon so, what we need are better tools to deal with the problem. I like to think of these tools collectively as Sleep Technology, by Sleep Technology I mean a methodical approach to ensure you always sleep well when you travel. This approach includes but is not limited to the sleep gadgets and such mentioned in the article. More on this later.

Before we get to what Sleep Technology is it is interesting to note other events happening around the subject of sleep which may be of interest to business fliers. Arianna Huffington's recent book Thrive talks about a turning point in her life that caused her to redefine success on her own terms. It came when Arianna collapsed from exhaustion and hit her head on her desk and needed stitches. We all need to look at our success in terms of our well being as much as anything else. An Airbus Industrie research paper determined that the optimum seat pitch for half decent rest in the economy cabin is 18 inches minimum. It is great to see this implemented on newer Airbus aircraft. Innovative companies like Google who prize productivity and creativity have sleep pods at the office. It's time to take power napping seriously as a productivity tool especially if getting quality sleep is challenging.

The article goes on to looks at the explosion of gadgets and tech available in pursuit of a good nights sleep. It highlights the good role technology has to play when it comes to sleep. Looking at the variety of options may prompt you to ask how we ever managed a good nights sleep before technology? One answer is that our sleep environment has changed a lot since then and while technology has some good answers it is also partly to blame. Neuroscience and Chronobiology research has revealed the effect different hues of light have on our sleep and wake cycles. The modern habit of turning night into day with light, be it a switch or a backlight from a computer screen impedes the hormonal cascade governing natural restful sleep. This includes the pillow tech apps (mentioned in the article) which need to be accessed from a screen. Disruptions like this are known to shut off melatonin secretion, a key component for good sleep.

A plus about the technology available is that there are so many tools at your disposal to get a handle on the challenge, its all about the feedback and how you interpret it. The best advice has to be to use these gadgets with caution, but get the basics right first. What other tools do we have at our disposal to help us habitually get a good night sleep? This is where Sleep Technology comes into its own. Sleep Technology is simply sleep know-how, I know it sounds absurd but we clearly haven’t got this right. It seems we have forgotten some basic knowledge about how we function best in the cut and thrust of 21st century living. Sleep Technology is about preserving and updating this know-how for the times we live in.

To state the obvious we need to go back to basics when it comes to sleep and the sleep environment is key in this respect. It's not just about removing distractions like TVs and electronics from the sleeping space. It is about creating optimal external and internal environments for sleep. This includes the sleep space and the biochemistry of the sleeper, moreover we want to accomplish this elegantly, so drugs and stimulants are off-limits.It's about knowing how to create optimal conditions for sleep when the situation presented to you is not ideal. The more you can control or influence the environments the better chance you have of getting a good nights sleep. How do you do this, what are the basics you need to know or get reacquainted with?

Total darkness - Did you know that sensing light in the head does not require you to have your eyes open? Bedside clocks and flashing LED displays should be avoided for this reason.
The Goldilocks Principle - Not too hot and not too cold. Did you know that body temperature is the last marker to adjust to complete a phase shift when transmeridian travel is undertaken? As a frequent flier this mechanism can sometimes wake you up in the middle of the night.Remedy, throw off the covers and allow you body temperature to go back down again, everything else being equal you will soon find yourself nodding back off to sleep again.
Silence - Noise is one of the most sensitive basics you need to pay attention to, its not just the obvious noise from the next room but white noise coming from the air conditioning or refrigeration in the hotel room and aircraft engines. If you fly a lot a pair of quality noise cancelling headphones is a must.
The Dawn Reset Hack - Did you know that dawn exposure to sunlight is when you can get the best entrainment benefit to put you in sync with local time? You can use it to your benefit or if you want to remain on home time this is the time to avoid sunlight and keep the home entrainment pattern.
The Exercise Reset Hack - Did you know that aerobic exercise to raise core temperature is a way of resetting your body clock. As I mentioned above body temperature is the last phase shift marker to signify adjustment to a new time zone. Preliminary research in mice suggests this is also beneficial to the tone of the body clock and delaying the aging process.
The Light Hack - Light is the strongest entrainer of our body clock. While the blue/white light spectrum is responsible for keeping us alert, the red light spectrum is useful for relaxing us and thus facilitate sleepiness. You can buy therapeutic light boxes with this spectrum of light for home use. Think about it when the sun goes down at dusk what spectrum of light is it? Its natures way of telling us its time to get ready for bed.

A quote from the article says “Sleep is still the most under-rated performance enhancer out there”, while this may be true what is harder to get across is that all the gadgets and technology count for nothing without us recognising we are in marathon and not a sprint. I heard a recurring question on Arianna Huffington’s Thrive book tour (by the twenty and thirtysomethings) was what is wrong with burning the midnight oil and sacrificing everything to make an impact in their chosen field? The hurry up and make it crowd just won’t wait.

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