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Are We Living Through a Sleep-Loss Epidemic?

Are We Living Through a Sleep-Loss Epidemic?

Sleep, as we all know, is critically important to good health – as essential to our mental and spiritual wellbeing as our physical vitality.

At least according to one top scientist, though, we simply do not get enough of it.

And our insistence on burning the midnight oil is having serious consequences, not just for our health but also for the economy.

The Dangers of Not Enough Sleep

It’s been nine months since we penned our blog How Much Sleep Do I Need?, which we were moved to write after watching Theresa May nod off in the House of Commons.

In an interview with the Guardian, Professor Matthew Walker – director of the University of California Berkeley’s Centre for Human Science – appears to answer that question on behalf of the majority: ‘Not enough.’

The sleep scientist goes further, claiming we are living through a ‘catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic’, with consequent grave effects on our health – not least a greater susceptibility to cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, high blood pressure, depression, strokes and diabetes. Quite alarming when you lay it all out, isn’t it?

Walker is the author of a new book, Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams, which explains in scientific terms the pitfalls of not getting enough shuteye.

Modern society, he says, has stigmatised sleep as a sign of slothfulness. This is something we touched on in our blog post last December: Donald Trump is just one example of a successful person who like to brag about getting by on just 3-4 hours a night.

If dozing is lazy, then being awake is synonymous with hyper-productivity. So goes this line of thinking, in any case.

It is not just an attitudinal problem, however. We now have to contend with more distractions than ever before. How many of us, before drifting off to sleep, lay captive in the bright glow of our smartphone or tablet screen, scrolling, clicking, liking, sharing, commenting?

There is a sense in the digital age that going to sleep means missing out on something important, whether it be a news item – the latest US-North Korea rhetoric has surely been responsible for a few sleepless nights – or the next episode of the Netflix show you can’t consume rapidly enough.

As Walker notes, human beings are the only species that deliberately deprives themselves of sleep.

Looking it at simply, we cannot really choose to get up later: the call of the workplace must be answered. What we can control, more often than not, is when our head hits the pillow. It is a matter of getting into a healthy routine, one conducive to a better night’s rest.

Grave health issues aside, lack of sleep can have a deleterious effect on our quality of life. Think about energy, for instance. If you’re relying on several cups of coffee to get you through the morning, there is clearly a root problem which needs to be addressed.

The danger is becoming so accustomed to low-level exhaustion that you fail to identify the cause. Regularly getting enough sleep is probably the single most important thing you can do to boost your energy levels.

Don’t Prescribe Sleeping Pills – Prescribe Sleep

“No aspect of our biology is left unscathed by sleep deprivation,” says Walker, who is calling for a policy sea change. “Yet no-one is doing anything about it. When did you ever see an NHS poster urging sleep on people? When did a doctor prescribe not sleeping pills but sleep itself? It needs to be prioritised, even incentivised.”

To give ballast to his arguments, the neuroscientists points out that sleep loss costs the British economy in excess of £30 billion in lost revenue each year – or 2% of GDP.

You might at this stage be wondering how much sleep Walker gets himself. In our previous blog, we noted that achieving less than six or more than eight hours a night was correlated with a greater risk of dying earlier, according to a 2015 University of Warwick study. Walker avoids this potential peril by consistently getting eight hours a night.

“I take my sleep incredibly seriously because I’ve seen the evidence,” Walker says.

Instilling Healthy Sleeping Habits

There are many steps you can take to assure a proper night’s sleep. Professor Walker suggests setting an alarm half an hour before you should go to bed, and starting to wind down from that point. The half-hour rule can also apply to electric lights, television, smartphones etc.

As for caffeine, you want to keep it as far away from bedtime as possible. According to one oft-cited 2013 study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, consuming caffeine even six hours before sleep can reduce total sleep time by a whole hour.

However you get it, make eight hours your target – and ignore those who insist they’ll “sleep when they’re dead.” The science is strong, and sticking determinedly to a night-time routine will pay dividends for your health.