Matrix gets scientific about sleep

Matrix gets scientific about sleep

April 19, 2017

By the end of an event like WTCE it’s quite obvious what the effects of sleep deprivation can do to a relatively sane and well functioning group of people (see photo!). The Onboard Hospitality team arrived at Hamburg airport bleary-eyed and slightly hysterical, even more-so on discovering that our 9.45pm easyJet flight home was delayed. But I observed our jaded journey with a more scientific eye than usual, having just that morning attended a lecture on sleep by a man who has dedicated his career to studying it.

British design and innovation company Matrix has partnered with Professor Russell Foster, CBE, director of the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at The University of Oxford, to try and apply some scientific thought to the passenger experience. Dr Foster is a man on a mission, to make everyone take sleep more seriously, and proves what I long suspected: that providing a flimsy eye mask doesn’t quite cut it when it comes to combating the often serious effects of sleep deprivation which travel can cause.

According to Matrix, disrupted sleep is the number one concern for airline passengers but it’s not being properly addressed. “Innovation has been slow and incremental, says Harry Zalk, director at Matrix. “That’s why we’ve decided to engage Professor Foster to think seriously and academically about the problems passengers have.”

Why sleep is important

Long term memories are cemented and information processed when we sleep. An experiment which proved this theory took a group of people and gave them a set of instructions to complete a task before splitting the group into three: the first group did the task the same day and 20% completed it successfully; the second did it the next day but were deprived of sleep and the same percentage completed it successfully, but the group who did it the next day after a good night’s sleep were 70% successful!

Sleep also allows our brains to remove waste products – proteins which can build up and are even attributed to Alzheimer’s. So it’s no wonder then, that lack of sleep impairs our cognitive ability and creativity. We can experience a 59% reduction in retaining positive emotions when we don’t sleep, we become more impulsive and we lose the ability to empathise (hence we become irritable).

Amazingly, not sleeping leads to a 15% reduction in performance – the same as being legally drunk! It also impairs our metabolic responses, which is why being tired is a bit like being hungover – we crave carbs – and has proven links to some serious physical and mental illnesses. Getting some shut eye is a serious business! But let’s try not to lose sleep over it…

How sleep works

When we sleep is governed by two systems interacting: our sleep drive (an internal biochemical system, building as soon as we wake and dissipating as soon as we fall asleep) and our circadian rhythm, or internal body clock, which works on a 24-hour cycle.

Just as our ears have a double task of managing hearing and balance, Dr Foster’s Oxford University team have discovered a third, previously unknown, photoreceptor in the eye, not for vision or spacial awareness but purely for detecting light and dark to feed information to the circadian system. He explains: “Embedded within our genes are the instructions for a biological clock that marks the passage of approximately 24 hours, but to work properly this clock must be locked onto the external world. Light and dark help us synchronise this inner clock with the outside world.”

When we travel across the globe the 24-hour system of light and dark shifts and the clock un-aligns with our internal biology. Jet lag is the result of these two systems falling out of synch with each other.

How can airlines help?

Dr Foster suggests it is time to chronotype individuals. There is actually a genetic basis for being a morning/night person so we should recognise people’s sleep ‘type’, better understand their need and start designing routines and sleep programmes to suit.

Routine is important – impossible when travelling of course. But what if airlines sent customers a pillow spray to start using several weeks before flying? The scent would then be associated with sleep and when it’s smelt again on the flight it would signal relaxation for the traveller.

Nutrition helps too – small doses of high protein are best for bodies preparing for sleep so airlines could offer meals which fit this better. Caffeine delays sleep and alcohol can disturb sleep.

The environment must be dark, not too warm, and quiet. It’s not easy (especially in Economy) but airlines could offer better noise-cancelling ear plugs, employ simple do not disturb buttons to ensure passengers don’t need to be woken unnecessarily and invest more in bedding which regulates body temperature.

We must limit our exposure to blue light at least 30 minutes before we sleep (the sort of light which iPads, laptops, TVs and phones give off). So perhaps airlines should look at IFE systems which reduce the blue light glare they give off on a night flight?

I look forward to seeing how Matrix can convert Dr Foster’s scientific expertise into a product airlines will actually want to buy. In the meantime, I for one will be taking sleep much more seriously.

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