Research suggests that the desire and demand for a good sleep are very high – and the outcomes for those who consistently don’t achieve it can be very harmful to health and wellbeing.
Why, exactly, are we so sleep-deprived? What has happened over the course of the last 75 years? In 1942, less than 8% of the population was trying to survive on six hours or less sleep a night; in 2017, it’s closer to 50%. The reasons are seemingly obvious according to Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker. “First, we electrified the night, and light is a profound degrader of our sleep. Second, there is the issue of work: not only the porous borders between when you start and finish, but longer commuter times, too. No one wants to give up time with their family or entertainment, so they give up sleep instead. And anxiety plays a part. We’re a lonelier, more depressed society. Alcohol and caffeine are more widely available. All these are the enemies of sleep.”
Matthew Walker, believes that in the developed world sleep is strongly associated with weakness, even shame. “We have stigmatised sleep with the label of laziness. We want to seem busy, and one way we express that is by proclaiming how little sleep we’re getting. It’s a badge of honour. No one would look at an infant baby asleep, and say ‘What a lazy baby!’ We know sleeping is non-negotiable for a baby. But that notion is quickly abandoned as we grow up. Humans are the only species that deliberately deprive themselves of sleep for no apparent reason.”
Sleep deprivation is an ‘epidemic’ and has powerful links to Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, poor mental health and obesity. Sleep, it seems, could be a new early diagnostic litmus test for different subtypes of dementia.
Does Matthew Walker take his own advice when it comes to sleep? “Yes. I give myself a non-negotiable eight-hour sleep opportunity every night, and I keep very regular hours: if there is one thing I tell people, it’s to go to bed and to wake up at the same time every day, no matter what. I take my sleep incredibly seriously because I have seen the evidence. Once you know that after just one night of only four or five hours’ sleep, your cells that attack the cancer cells that appear in your body every day – drop by 70%, or that a lack of sleep is linked to cancer of the bowel, prostate and breast, or even just that the World Health Organisation has classed any form of night-time shift work as a probable carcinogen, how could you do anything else?”
It would be nice to think that our bodies regulate each of us over time, and the averages work to our advantage, allowing us to adopt the “life’s for living and who needs rules” approach, but the academic research tells us otherwise. Without sleep, there is low energy and disease. With sleep, there is vitality and health. More than 20 large-scale epidemiological studies all report the same clear relationship: the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life. To take just one example, adults aged 45 years or older who sleep less than six hours a night are 200% more likely to have a heart attack or stroke in their lifetime, as compared with those sleeping seven or eight hours a night. Part of the reason for this has to do with blood pressure: even just one night of modest sleep reduction will speed the rate of a person’s heart, hour upon hour, and significantly increase their blood pressure.
Put another way, if sleep isn’t that important really, put your hand up if you would be happy with a sleep-deprived: surgeon, pilot, driver, air traffic controller, teacher, or barber?
What can you do to improve your sleep?
- Avoid all-nighters on the dance floor or your desk
- Think about sleep like going to the gym (but it’s free and relaxing)
- Have an alarm that reminds you to go to bed, and start winding down
- Ask your employer if you can start and finish later
- Remember what the word ‘midnight’ means
- Consider a digital device that measures your sleep (for example a Fitbit)
- Remove LED lighting from the bedroom – mobile phones, radios, computers and TVs
- Keep your bedroom dark, quiet and cool
At Wallstone, we believe that to live well you need to sleep well.
This research was taken from Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker. You can find Matthew’s book at all good bookshops or online at Penguin, Hive and Amazon.