It's Time to Take Sleep Seriously

CC BY 2.0. vic

Because the lack of sleep is killing us.

Do you recall Gilgamesh's ill-fated quest for immortality? Well, if current research is accurate, the ancient Babylonian king would have been better off staying at home and sleeping a solid eight to nine hours a night, in order to extend his years on Earth. Sleep, it seems, is the closest thing we have to a magic bullet solution to a wide range of ailments plaguing the modern world, from diabetes and cancer to obesity and mental health, and the amount of time you spend sleeping is linked to how long you're likely to live.

Matthew Walker, neuroscientist and author of the just-published 'Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams,' spoke with Rachel Cooke of The Guardian about why sleep is so terribly important, and yet is flagrantly ignored by the vast majority of people, even medical professionals.

“No aspect of our biology is left unscathed by sleep deprivation. It sinks down into every possible nook and cranny. And yet no one is doing anything about it. Things have to change: in the workplace and our communities, our homes and families."

Walker maintains that sleep loss costs the UK economy more than £30 billion (US$40 bn) a year in lost revenue, or 2 percent of GDP. The eternally-struggling NHS (the UK's National Health Service) could have its budget doubled "if only they would institute policies to mandate or powerfully encourage sleep.”

But such a move would be unheard of, as it goes against a culture that celebrates and reinforces sleep deprivation at every turn. A need for sleep is viewed as a weakness, a threat to one's dedication to work. Nor has electrification of people's homes over the past century helped the situation. Combined with longer commute times, busy late-night schedules, and easy access to alcohol and caffeine and Netflix, it's harder than ever to turn oneself off and in for the night.

sleeping on the job

reynermedia -- Sleeping on the job/CC BY 2.0

Walker thinks this is crazy. As the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, and having spent more than two decades doing sleep research, Walker says there is a strong connection between lack of sleep and disease. More than 20 large-scale epidemiological studies have concluded that same: the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life.

Adults over 45 who sleep less than 6 hours a night are 200 percent more likely to have a heart attack or stroke in their lifetime, compared to those who sleep seven to eight hours a night. Children who are sleep-deprived are aggressive and more prone to bullying. Teenagers get suicidal. Former addicts relapse into old habits.

"Once you know that after just one night of only four or five hours’ sleep, your natural killer cells – the ones that attack the cancer cells that appear in your body every day – drop by 70 percent, or that a lack of sleep is linked to cancer of the bowel, prostate and breast, or even just that the World Health Organization has classed any form of night-time shift work as a probable carcinogen, how could you do anything else?”

Walker would like to see broad changes across society, with the medical community, all levels of government, employers, and the education system cooperating together to ensure that proper sleep becomes normalized once again, the way it was prior to the 1940s.

Change, however, must start on a personal level for now. Walker insists that people should not be fighting their alarm clocks, and if you are, it's a sign you're not getting enough sleep. You should not need coffee mid-morning or in the early afternoon just to get through the day. He recommends avoiding pulling all-nighters of any sort, whether work-related or partying, and committing oneself to sleeping and waking at the same time every day. In fact, sleep should be considered a job of sorts -- as important as eating well and exercising.

It's a big request for a sleep-abhorrent society, but one that Walker thinks people will accept once they realize how much it matters. Who knows! I, for one, am seriously considering heading to bed early instead of going to the local bar for some old-fashioned Newfoundland fiddle tunes on my last night in St. John's ... but then again, maybe I'll risk the brain damage for a pint and some live music.