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Sleep Lessons Learned from NASA

There has been a great deal of research done and conclusions written about the impact that the rising and setting of the sun have on our daily sleep cycles, and sleep researchers hoping to help those suffering from insomnia have used this research to assist people with sleep hygiene.  We know that waking up early and getting out and spending time in the sunlight during the day helps us to restore our circadian rhythms, and we know that the use of television and other blue-light devices such as tablets, computers and cell phones close to our bedtime can wreak havoc with the body’s recognition of when it is time to go to sleep. Now NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, is providing even more conclusive evidence that not having the proper exposure to standard daylight and nightfall have a dramatic impact on our ability to function.

If you think about it makes sense that NASA would have to have studied the impact of light and darkness on the astronauts and their ability to sleep. After all, when we are stationary on earth sunrise and sunset are a once-a-day event, but when astronauts are hurtling through space they are not only deprived of the predictable nature of these daily events, they are actually being exposed to sunrise and sunset dozens of times each day and night in space. Though this may sound remarkable (and it is), it also has an extremely deleterious impact on their sleep schedule, a problem that NASA has had to work hard to respond to because having insufficient sleep creates enormous problems with mental and cognitive well-being. By way of example, one Russian astronaut Valentine Lebedev indicated that after having a series of very late and unstructured bedtimes, he found that he had spent a day taking photographs of the wall of the space capsule when he had thought that he was taking photos of the Earth through a porthole.

As scientists became increasingly aware of this problem, they came to a few important conclusions about the nature of sleep. They realized that absent the normal signals that our brains receive when we look out the window and see daylight or darkness, we quickly become incapable of regulating our own sleep without assistance. Much of this is a result of the fact that left to its own devices, the body does not stick to our socially-imposed 24 hour schedule. Instead it works on a 25.4-hour schedule. Without external cues and alarms, a 25.4 hour schedule can put a person as much as ten hours off in just a few days, and can actually end up cycling 24 hours around the clock from others who are on a more regimented schedule in a short amount of time.

The other important lesson that NASA learned from their study of astronauts’ sleep cycles is that when people are suffering from sleep deprivation, they underestimate the impact that it has on them and their ability to perform. In the book Bold Endeavors: Lessons from Polar and Space Exploration, Jack Stuster examines NASA’s findings, as well as those learned on other expeditions. He writes, “It is a folklore belief that all people adapt to regular sounds and are not affected by noises perceived during their sleep. In fact, the sleep of most people is disturbed by even the most regular sounds; for some individuals, the quality of sleep can be reduced without conscious recognition or complete awakening.” This is of obvious importance to astronauts, who are constantly sleeping in an environment of light and noise while responsible for performing highly technical and risky responsibilities while awake. It is also important to society at large, particularly when considering the impact of modern technology. As John Durant writes in The Paleo Manifesto: Ancient Wisdom for Lifelong Health, “Today our bodies have become thoroughly confused by the artificial signals of modern life. Light is no longer a cyclical function of the sun, but of always-on indoor lights, TV screens and computer monitors. Temperature no longer follows a dynamic cycle of cooling at night and warming during the day but sits at a static level set by the thermostat. Human chatter and social interaction used to follow a natural ebb and flow, but now we are more likely to live and sleep in isolation from real people, even while we have 24/7 access to artificial people. The after utterly confusing our circadian rhythm, we try to take back control with stimulants and depressants. Is it any wonder that a third of Americans are chronically sleep-deprived?”

Durant’s point is good. Science has shown that those among us who consistently shortchange our own sleep cycles by sleeping six hours a night or less are cognitively at the same level as those who have gone a full 24-hour cycle without sleep, or somebody who is legally intoxicated, yet they are completely unaware of their reduced performance.

In response to the problem, NASA took energetic and definitive steps. Chief among them was the maintenance of a consistent and predictable schedule seven days a week. Astronauts were not permitted to stray into the 25.4 free-running sleep cycle. They also were required to take a full hour before their bedtime to unwind and relax. They added artificial day and nighttime cues in order to create the sense of morning and evening. They also created a way to make the astronauts’ sleep quarters dark, cool and noise-free.

For those who suffer from insomnia, these tips are all extremely helpful and can be applied to our daily lives. Another tip that has been offered by Durant is the idea of setting an alarm for when it is time to go to bed. Our society does not put enough emphasis or importance on our need for sleep, but by setting an appointment with yourself to get the sleep that you need, you can help your overall performance during the day.

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