A quirky hobby of mine is looking at old advertisements, particularly for consumer goods. A favorite of mine is from the late 19th century, showcasing a product meant for children who couldn’t sleep from toothaches.
These snapshots in time tell us so much: how little we knew (or ignored), how far we’ve come, and most importantly, they force us to think about our culture today. Oftentimes we look at advertisements like these and think, “How was this ok?” However, if patterns hold true, we will inevitably look back on routines we accept as normal today and question how we could have ever thought them to be acceptable.
Take, for instance, the product that the NIH identifies as the deadliest artefact in the history of human civilization: the cigarette. In the late 1950s, around half of the entire population of industrialized nations smoked, including neaerly 80% of adults in the UK. The cigarette was promoted as high-society, a classy passtime, a way to make you happy, and, in some cases, doctor recommended. This was despite prior research linking cigarettes and smoking to cancer.
As early as the 1920s, German scientists had identified a link between smoking and lung cancer. By the 1950s, British researchers demonstrated an even clearer relationship. Still, advertisements such as these were seen frequently in print media:
In the 1950s, we knew that smoking caused cancer and other disease. We knew that smoking a cigarette, on average, shortened a user’s life by about 13 minutes. We knew that a lifelong smoker smoked around 300,000 cigarettes in their lifetime (by this metric, shortening life by an average of 7 and a half years) and cigarettes were still promoted frequently and a large part of everyday life. It wasn’t until 1966 that the Surgeon General began requiring warning labels on cigarettes, and by 2019, nearly half of all living adults who had ever smoked had quit.
Today, we face a similar dilemma with an even more common element of life: sleep. We are constantly pressured to “grind now, sleep later” or told that we can “sleep when we’re dead”, but we have yet to accept that it is exactly this lack of sleep that is affecting our health.
Currently, 70 of American adults say they have insufficient sleep at least 1 night a month, 11% report insufficient sleep every night, and 25% report insufficient sleep 15 out of the last 30 days, and half report insufficient sleep at least once a week. We accept these deficiencies in exchange for “working hard” or “increased productivity” and ignore the health effects.
In 2007, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified “shift work with circadian disruption” (night-shift work) as a probable carcinogen. The WHO has declared sleep loss an epidemic amongst industrialized nations. Studies have shown that people who sleep less than 6 hours per night have a 20% higher risk of heart attack and demonstrated significantly higher likelihood of stroke. We also know that sleeping less than 6 hours per night can damage your DNA, causing foreign cell growth and increasing your chance of developing cancer by as much as 50%. A 2018 study across 10,000 individuals showed that sleeping 4 hours per night or less was the equivalent of aging a person’s brain by 8 years.
Still, 50 million Americans regularly suffer from over 80 different sleep disorders and another 20-30 million suffer intermittent sleep problems every year -- but we live on, accepting these problems as part of modern life. What we have not accepted is that this lack of sleep is increasing our risks of a variety of health defects, including depression, obesity, hypertension, anxiety, diabetes, stroke, cardiovascular disease, and even psychosis.
However, we can change. We need to recognize sleep as essential to a healthy life and not something that gets in the way of a successful one. In fact, it is exactly the opposite. In 2016, the Rand Corporation conducted a study that attributed lack of sleep in industrialized nations to up to a 3% loss of GDP per year. In the US, this is over $400B in lost productivity and this is in addition to the increased costs of healthcare stemming from our lack of sleep. Quality sleep will increase your productivity and chance of success, not restrict it.
But where do we start? With numbers like these, sleep is big business, and there are many products available that equate sleep to sedation. Common OTC “sleep” solutions often include chemicals like antihistamines to induce drowsiness and sedation, blocking your body’s natural sleep cycle. Plant-based solutions like RealSleep can promote natural sleep (not sedation) and, in conjunction with a strong sleep routine, start you on a path to healthier sleep and a healthier life.
We have the proof today: lack of sleep is killing us. It’s time we pay attention. Otherwise, we may look back on our routines today and think, “How was that ok?”