Sleep deprivation and mental health

Our current model for a stable sleep pattern is a fairly new development in society. We’re told often that 8 hours of sleep is a healthy number to follow. The immense changes brought on by technology (artificial lights), along with the social reforms that shaped the 19th century have lead to the current 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep as a standard. But in reality, our bodies may be following a much older model, coded into our genes by millions of years of evolution. Research shows that before these changes, most people would experience what is called ‘biphasic sleep’ – a two-part pattern of sleep that involves a few hours of sleep, an hour or two of wakefulness, and a second sleep, until morning. Experts say that probably some people who are diagnosed with a form of insomnia might actually have this underlying, older pattern of sleep.

Insomnia is a difficult disorder to diagnose, since it relies so much on the subjective experience of the patient. The time it takes to fall asleep or the period of sleeplessness can be exaggerated by patients. In some few cases, people can even confuse periods of wakefulness with sleep (sleep state misperception). It is also difficult to diagnose because of how much it varies: in frequency and length, from acute insomnia (a few days) to chronic insomnia (that can last months). There are also periods of time when there are no sleep problems whatsoever, only to resurface after a few days. Chronic insomnia is when a person is unable to sleep at least three nights a week for a month or longer. The symptoms and consequences of sleeplessness also vary, from the mildly irritating, to the extremely dangerous. It’s easy to see how, in such a broad spectrum of possibilities, arises a need to protect ourselves and our bodies – and perhaps this is why pharmaceutical solutions are so easily dispensed.

So how much sleep do we really need? And how can we properly combat insomnia, and identify it properly, and perhaps most importantly – use medication only when nothing else can be of help. A return to a biphasic sleep pattern cannot be a proper solution, since most people are active between (the same) specific hours. However, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) shows us the following statistics: 12% of people sleep <6 hours 23% sleep for 6-7 hours 55% sleep for 7-9 hours 10% sleep 9+ hours
While indeed the majority of people are situated between 7 to 9 hours of sleep, the rest of the population is wildly divided, the number of sleep hours varying greatly. Therefore, it is often readily assumed that people who sleep less (or more) might suffer from some sort of mental issue (insomnia or other disorders that can cause insomnia). This solution comes just as often in the formof medication. Sleeping pills can be highly addictive and can cause more severe problems than insomnia if taken over a longer period of time.

In truth, the adequate amount of hours a person needs will depend first and foremost on their constitution, the needs of their body. It is less dependant on social factors, but we enforce them still. When experiencing sleep deprivation, some harmless solutions to try would be limiting exposure to artificial light in the evenings, more exposure to natural light during the day. Sleep is often cast aside by many people as a commodity, something unessential. But it is a grave mistake. New research shows that never before in our lives have we needed more quality sleep. Our contemporary

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