Jay Talking: Sleep studies are keeping me awake

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Since studies on sleep are confusing, don't lie awake wondering which to follow

I bring you exciting news from the ever stimulating world of sleep research.

This week, the United States National Sleep Foundation (yes, this is a real foundation and no, I do not know how to get a job there) issued updated guidelines about how many hours of sleep different groups of people need.

And guess what? As it turns out, the foundation has discovered that you - yes, you - are not getting enough sleep.

How do I know this? For one thing, this has been the finding of nearly every sleep study commissioned since the beginning of time. And second, the foundation's guidelines recommend that adults get between seven and nine hours of sleep every night. No adult in Singapore has achieved this much nightly sleep since March 1979.

What with our days filled with work, shopping, public intoxication, queueing for free porridge with special braised rat salted vegetables and littering at the Laneway Festival, there just isn't enough time left to get the requisite seven to nine hours.

But before I get any further into the whole sleep thing, I think it's important we have a word about littering.

A lot of people seem to be quite upset about Singaporeans being blamed for littering at the Laneway Festival. Okay, so maybe there were lots of foreigners at the festival. Fair enough. Although, let's not start pretending that the Gardens by the Bay would have been spotless had it been a locals-only event. We are litterbugs too.

Littering has become sort of an integral part of our lives. We don't just do it - we have devoted hours to perfecting the art.

All of us are expert proponents of pretending to walk and secretly dropping a piece of tissue on the floor. I have once tried to secretly discard a sweet wrapper in a public telephone coin return slot, only to find it was already full of rubbish.

We have all collectively discarded something like a billion of those little carpark coupon cardboard circles. I've had a friend explain to me that the little circles are actually meant to be discarded on the ground. "They will biodegrade and become fertiliser for the plants. So you see, you have to throw them on the ground. Don't disrupt the circle of life," he said.

Let's also not forget that this is a country that escalated one discarded, partially eaten stick of fishballs into an issue of national significance. I mean, it takes some tolerance for dirt to react with the exemplary stoic calm Singaporeans did when encountering a buffet rodent.

Now back to the sleep thing. So the natural thing to do when confronted with a study that shows you do not have enough sleep is to quickly find some ways to get more sleep.

Regular readers of this column may recall that I happen to be a big advocate of napping at work. In fact, I once wrote an entire piece calling on people to take a nap in their office toilets. It's an activity known as "slooping" - a portmanteau of the word sleeping and another word to describe what typically happens on a quiet toilet throne.

But before you rush off to your toilet stall, please remember that too much sleeping could kill you. That's right. I have in my hand a completely separate study that indicates that napping in the day could lead to an early death.

A study last year from the University of Cambridge found that people who took naps that lasted longer than one hour were 32 per cent more likely to die before age 65 than people who didn't nap at all. The study was not conclusive about how napping causes someone to knock off early, but I guess it is better to be safe than sorry. If we are going to get more sleep, we should focus our energies on getting more sleep at night.

But wait, I have recently been informed of another study that says too much sleep at night could lead to heart problems.

Apparently, people who sleep for more than eight hours a night are twice as likely as those who sleep between six and eight to have an angina. They also have a slightly higher risk of coronary artery disease.

So let's take a moment to review what sleep research has told us about sleeping.

First, we need to sleep about seven to nine hours a day. This should preferably take place at night on a bed because if you nap, especially if it is a long nap, it might lead to an early death. While it's good to get a good amount of sleep at night, you shouldn't sleep too long because that might increase your risk of heart disease.

And those are just the three most eye-catching studies I've come across. While doing research for this piece, I've read dozens of studies that lay out other rules for sleeping, including not using your smartphone an hour before sleeping.

And yet, at no point do they answer some of the practical sleep questions most people have. For instance, at what point does a nap become a full sleep? What differentiates a power nap from a non-power nap? If I sleep for 24 hours straight, does that mean I can go the next three nights without going to bed?

Basically, it's all very confusing. Maybe we can just sleep however we want to sleep. My method is to sleep when I'm sleepy and wake up before the boss notices I am missing. All the other studies are sort of worthless and we should throw them away.

But, please, let's try and use a bin.

jeremyau@sph.com.sg