The future of sleep: How our sleeping patterns will change

It's Sleep Week on The Project, meaning it's time to talk all things shut-eye. Today we're looking at the future of sleep, and how things are going to change in the years to come. 

Sleep: It's one of the most natural, biological processes we have. But what does the future look like? Will we be swapping the optimal eight hours on a Sealy spring bed with smart pyjamas, smart pillows, a computerised mattress and genetically modified sleep genes?

As climates shift, and our life is crammed with crazy new innovations each day, the world is ever-changing - and with it, the way we sleep.

Sleep is now on a par with diet and exercise as critical to our wellbeing.

"In Japan - they've just recognised sleep debt. Company pay people if they sleep a certain number of hours, so rewarding people with actually getting sleep," says futurist Dr Robert Hickson. 

Napping is no longer something to hide.

Cool, cutting-edge workplaces like Google and Samsung are paying their employees to snooze. 

Sleep is getting smarter - there are smart pillows, smart mattresses. Even your pyjamas have had an upgrade.

"I think smart pyjamas sound great, actually," says Dr Angela Campbell, manager of WellSleep at The University of Otago. 

"There is already tech available within wearable material to monitor things like temp, blood pressure, oxygen levels... that type of tech, worn during the night, will give us more information - and if we have got a sleep problem, pin down what that problem might be." 

But if you're on a budget, a recent study shows that plain sheep's wool is supposed to buy you an extra 15 minutes of sleep a night.

But back to the future. Soon we might be able to genetically modify our way to a shorter, better night's sleep - a sort of quality-over-quantity-type thing. 

Yes that dream could be a reality for us all. Biologists mapping the human genome believe they've found a sleep gene that might hold the secret to a successful "light" sleep. Enhance that gene and we might all be able to operate on a couple of hours a night.

"Sounds great doesn't it? Imagine all the other things we could get done during the day if were able to manage on say five hours a night," says Dr Campbell. 

But at a cost, of course.

"We know that people who are short sleepers are at an increased risk of long-term health problems, so we need to weigh up the 'let's-stay-awake-as-long-we-can' against any negative health outcomes," says Dr Campbell. 

Whether it's genetics, or all that fancy tech and innovation, trying to engineer our way to a better night's sleep may be futile, because mother nature has plans of her own.

Environmental climate change means some people get up much earlier to go and work before it gets too hot. A new study published in journal Earth's Future shows that if society tries to avoid the economic impacts of climate change on outdoor labour by shifting working hours, outdoor workers in many regions will need to start working well before dawn at the end of this century to avoid the effect of excessive heat stress.

So in the future, we may have to set the alarm clock a few hours earlier to avoid the heat of the day.

And perhaps one day, we'll be swapping the optimal eight hours on the Sealy spring bed with smart pyjamas, smart pillows, a computerised mattress tucking us in with our genetically modified sleep genes!

Tune in to the Project this week for more Sleep Week.

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