The Mysterious World of Sleep

06/10/2015 08:36 am ET | Updated Jun 10, 2016
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I've been thinking a lot about sleep lately. It's a topic many complain about and discuss occasionally with friends and family, but it still remains a very mysterious topic to most people around the world.

After air, water and food, it's probably the most essential thing in our lives to ensure our health and daily functioning. And although it's self evident, it bears repeating that almost all humans spend one third of their lives (25-30 years) sleeping.

So why do we still know so little about this time when our brains and our bodies seem to shut down? What role does sleep play in repairing our bodies and in our overall health? What role do dreams play in our psychological well being?

When I was a freshman in college, now 35 years ago, I took an introductory psychology class and the professor spent a lot of time teaching about sleep and its important relationship to our unconscious. He also assigned a book by a famous Stanford sleep researcher, Dr. William Dement, called Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep. Out of the hundreds of books I read in college that one still stands out as groundbreaking and ahead of its time.

Dement is one of the leading sleep researchers of the late 20th century and even today there are many very bright doctors and researchers studying the mysterious world of non-wakefulness. But it seems to me that this is an area of study that still lags behind other sciences because it is, perhaps, pseudo-science and seems to be an impenetrable part of human existence.

There are more than 80 diagnosed "sleep disorders" according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and many of them can only be diagnosed in sleep laboratories where patients are wired up to electrodes all night to monitor their sleep and brain waves. The two best-known disorders are: sleep apnea (constricting of breathing airwaves that leads to frequent arousals each night) and restless leg syndrome (an involuntary jerking of the leg which awakens those who suffer from it, not to mention their bedmates, too).

But sleep and its discontents is a much more multi-faceted problem and it seems to get worse each year despite the technological and medical progress we are making. In fact, technology has recently been discovered to be a new and onerous impediment to good sleep: the more "blue light" one is exposed to in the hours before sleep, the harder it is to fall asleep and this exposure to phone/computer devices also negatively impacts the quality of one's sleep.

Teenagers today, many of whom desperately need at least eight to nine hours of quality sleep each night, are tethered to their phones in bed and this constant texting, Facebook searching, Instagram posting and other technological addictions is literally making our kids weary and less productive. Technology, the great advance of the late 20th century, which is supposed to make our lives better and easier, is actually in some ways an impediment to a healthier, quieter life.

In addition to technology, the major advances in pharmaceutical drugs of the 20th century may also be a counterproductive element in our desire to lead healthier, better-rested lives. Rather than seek natural and behavioral fixes to our sleep problems, a growing percentage of Americans are resorting to quick fixes in pills. These may help in the short-term but they can have significantly deleterious effects in the medium-to-long-term. Chronic dependence, memory impairment and other negative side effects are now being discovered in recent research about sleep medications.

More than 70 million Americans (more than 20 percent) have chronic sleep problems and 40 percent get less than the recommended amount of sleep according to a recent Gallup Survey. The amount of money spent each year related to sleep products - almost $24 billion -- is growing each year. It now includes products ranging from specialized mattresses to white noise machines to apps that monitor your sleep to a wide range of prescription and over the counter medications.

What can we do to deal with this growing public health problem? Well, first of all, we have to stop being part of a culture that looks at sleep as a sign of weakness and prizes those who work so hard that they are chronically sleep deprived. We have to recognize that our teenagers need more sleep - and simple fixes like starting their school day later will help alleviate this and must become part of public policy. We must start educating people at all ages of the variety of ways they can help themselves get better nights of sleep -- through nutrition (for example, eating cherries or bananas two hours before going to sleep can help a lot), sleep hygiene (no technology or television in the bedroom) and common sense approaches like no food just before going to bed, no caffeine for at least eight hours before sleep time, keeping a regular sleep schedule (even on weekends) and many other simple solutions to a very complicated issue.

If you've read this far, I hope this column hasn't made you fall asleep... or maybe it would be good if it did if you have sleep issues.

Tom Allon, the president of City & State, NY, is a recovering insomniac. Questions or comments: