Eye on France: A national wake-up call on sleep patterns

French people are sleeping less. Over the last fifty years, the average amount of Gallic shuteye has declined by as much as 90 minutes, to fewer than seven hours per night. Le Monde investigates a national epidemic.

Are you getting enough? VSC / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

Smartphones and computers are mostly to blame, with a little help from increased noise levels.

According to the latest report from the French public health people, the national average for a night’s sleep, weekend lie-ins included, is now 6 hours and 42 minutes, down from 7 hours, nine minutes a decade ago.

This is not good news from a health point of view, with doctors noting an epidemic of sleep insufficiency.

French people go to bed late, at 23H15, and get up early, at 6H48.

Six hours and 42 minutes is actually 19 minutes short of the ideal amount of sleep, that calculated as the average of all responses to the question “how much sleep do you need to feel in top form?” which comes in at 7 hours and 14 minutes.

How much shuteye do we need?

Most doctors seem to agree that seven hours is the correct amount.

If you sleep fewer than 6 hours, you are building a sleep deficit. Nearly half of French women between the ages of 45 and 54 have a sleep debt. Some of them are severely indebted, meaning they are always 90 minutes off the ideal mark. Most men do slightly better.

It’s a serious problem.

Sleep deprivation leads to a worsening of practically all chronic illnesses.

If you’re getting fewer than 6 hours per night, you are more likely to be fat, diabetic, have high blood pressure, heart disease, and be you’ll also be more open to infection.

Your memory will work worse, you will have trouble learning and concentrating. Your brain will shrink, especially in certain crucial zones. You’re likely to irritable and depressive.

It’s enough to make you lose sleep.

Risky business!

Worse, lack of sleep leads to an increased risk of accidents, and to an excessive use of alcohol and drugs. Regular smokers are over-represented in the category of those considered as severely sleep deprived.

More French people work at night now compared to ten years ago. And they tend to live further away from their workplaces, thus needing to get up earlier.

If you are poorly qualified and live in a city of more than 200,000 inhabitants, the chances are you are not getting enough sleep. The man who coined the phrase about white lies, damned lies and statistics was certainly not joking!

What's causing it, doctor?

Needless to remark, technology is to blame. Isn't it always? Kids are spending 4 hours and 11 minutes of every day glued to screens, adults are even worse at 5 hours, seven minutes, excluding professional use. Since there’s always one more message to read, or one more tweet to be tweeted, the moment for switching off and falling asleep is constantly deferred.

Many teenagers leave their phones switched on during the night and so are woken by alerts. Or by their sleepless friends.

And since we all want to feel completely connected all of the time, sleep begins to seem like an optional distraction from life on-line in our busy, ever-changing, plugged-in world.

To say nothing of the impact on our daily rhythms caused by the blue light emitted by computer and phone screens, which upsets the body’s production of the hormone melatonin, crucial in controlling the way we deal with day and night.

And then there’s noise

Planes, motor bikes, café terraces all contribute. To say nothing of motorway rumble, demented songbirds who get by on a two-hour snooze and think everyone should sing for a couple of hours before breakfast.

Light pollution and climatic warming are also eating into our daily rest.

There is one positive point: fewer people are complaining of insomnia, as many as 15 to 20 percent by comparison with earlier reports. But that may be simply because the rest of us are sleeping so little, no one notices insomnia any more.

Except among women, once again, who are still as badly affected by chronic sleeplessness as ever.

So, what can be done to end this modern epidemic?

More information, for starters, especially for those most likely to be worst affected. Then, common-sense moves like better beds, thicker curtains.

And more snoozes are called for. Nearly one third of the French already indulge in the siesta at least once a week. They should do it more, since a 20 to 30 minute nap has been shown to reverse most of the ill-effects of an otherwise sleep-deprived existence.

More light exercise would help as well.