The 5 Most Impactful Findings From National Geographic’s “Science of Sleep” Issue

Our sleep shortage affects our economy, productivity, and our health.

Image courtesy of  fotojog/ Getty Images

If you’re used to finding photographs of far-flung landscapes in National Geographic, you may be surprised to discover that the magazine’s August issue is focused on a topic closer to home: the science of sleep.

The cover story is a deep look into sleep and its effect on our well-being, and the magazine’s editors liken sleep to a place we go, rather than a state of being. “Sleep is an undiscovered country that each one of us travels to every night, but we really don’t understand it very well,” said senior editor Robert Kunzig in an interview with CBS This Morning. “It’s hugely important for our health in our daily lives.” Here are 5 things we learned from this month’s cover story:

1. The epidemic of sleep is costing us

The CDC has found that 35 percent of adults are not getting the recommended seven hours of sleep, and one in three adults are suffering from lack of sleep. Most Americans sleep less than seven hours a night, about two hours less than a century ago. Needless to say, the epidemic of sleep is costing us, both economically and physically. Sleep-deprived consumers are paying over $66 billion on devices, medications, and sleep studies — a figure that could rise to $85 billion by 2021. According to Kunzig, we’re also spending more than $411 billion to make up for the accidents and loss of productivity caused by lack of sleep.

2. We weren’t built to skimp on sleep

We’ve always been told that getting sufficient sleep is good for us, but the recent science cited in the NatGeo spread is inspiring us to hit the pillow earlier. “Every animal, without exception, exhibits at least a primitive form of sleep” writes Michael Finkel. “It’s evidently natural law that a creature, no matter the size, cannot go full throttle 24 hours a day.” The biology doesn’t lie, and the stress of staying awake is taking its toll on our bodies. “There’s all sorts of health effects that are linked to sleeplessness: heart disease, diabetes… even obesity,” Kunzig explained.

3. Sleep is a spiral journey

Did you know one night of sleep actually consists of a series of cycles? In the first stage, we fall into sleep, which takes about five minutes. Then, our brain stays active in the second stage, as it fires into its editing process, deciding which memories to hold onto from the day. Since sleep reinforces memory, exhausted soldiers are actually advised not to go directly to bed if they just returned from a disturbing mission. In the third and fourth stages, we enter a deep sleep – a “physiological housekeeping” for our bodies. Then, in REM sleep, we experience dreams. Some scientists say our dreaming state is a psychotic state, as we can experience hallucinations and delusions.

4. When sleep is interrupted, the whole day can feel different

The magazine issue includes an interview with Thrive founder and CEO Arianna Huffington, who spoke to editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg about what happens when sleep cycles are interrupted. As it turns out, an interrupted night of sleep can make the difference between an energized morning or an exhausted one. “One of the metaphors I use is that sleep is like the laundry,” Huffington explained. “You’re not going to take out the laundry 10 minutes early to save time. You have to complete all the cycles in the washing machine. Our sleep cycles have to be completed too; otherwise we wake up and feel like wet and dirty laundry.”

5. We’re starting to realize the value of sleep, but we need to take action

“We’re at a moment of transformation,” said Huffington on the prioritization of sleep. It seems that people want to go to sleep, but with addictive devices, intrusive sources of blue light, and the glamorization of long, productive days, our sleep-thwarting habits are making it difficult to reach our sleep goals. “The war on sleep began when incandescent bulbs first made it easy to banish night,” reports Finkel. “The problem is that in the modern world, our ancient, innate wake-up call is constantly triggered by non-life-threatening situations,” he writes. “A full night’s sleep now feels as rare and old-fashioned as a handwritten letter,” Finkel writes. But it shouldn’t, and putting down our phones earlier is a huge step in getting more restorative shuteye. The importance of setting boundaries with our devices is more relevant than ever before, and the time to set those boundaries is now. 

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