Answers to the Questions You're Too Tired to Ask!

Several years ago, I read a fascinating study on how sleep patterns have changed since the industrial revolution. Two differences stood out as the most significant.

First, the average person has knocked off more than a full hour of sleep daily, and is now sleeping a mere 6.8 hours, instead of the recommended 8 to 9 hours for adults.

Second, people historically had two sleep sessions daily (yes…a siesta was the standard). If we go back far enough, say 100 years, we find that people slept for 4 hours in the early evening, got up, socialised, prayed, read books, and then went back to sleep for another 4-6 hours.

Since then, I have read numerous studies on the effects of sleep deprivation and there is no question that sufficient sleep is one of the key pillars of preventative medicine. Fast forward to today, and sleep deprivation has become one of the most significant challenges to public health. Lack of sleep is making us ill, overweight and…well…less smart! 

The good news is that, at last, there is a ‘go to’ book to educate ourselves about the science of sleep. ‘Why We Sleep,’ by neuroscientist Matthew Walker, is superbly researched and I highly recommend adding it to your reading list.

Here are a few key facts to consider:

•Walker describes the detrimental effects of a 7 hour sleep (or less) as equivalent to being a smoker or drinking alcohol in excess.

•Lack of sufficient sleep leads to overeating, as the hormone that tells us when we are full is blunted by lack of sleep.

•Compounding this problem, lack of sleep also triggers the hormone that tells us we are hungry!

•Lack of sleep prevents the brain from making new memories. 

•Further, when we don’t get a full nights sleep, beta-amyloid proteins that are removed from the brain when sleeping, accumulate. The more beta-amyloid proteins collect in the brain, the greater your chances of dementia in later life.

•Lack of sleep in teenagers and children is linked to schizophrenia and depression…a significant issue due to the early start time for classes in most schools and colleges.

•Just one night of 5 or less hours of sleep reduces critical anti-cancer natural killer cells by 70%. Sleep deprivation is linked to the development of numerous forms of cancer…so much so that the World Health Organisation now classifies night-time shift work as a probable carinogen.

•If you sleep six hours or less, your blood pressure rises and you have a 200% increased risk of a fatal heart attack or stroke in your lifetime. 

•Another effect of lack of sleep is seen in men’s testosterone levels, which drop to that of a man ten years older when sleeping between 5 and 6 hours a night, affecting both virility and wellness. 

So how long can we last without sleep before we begin to see significant decline in brain and body function? Studies show that once we are awake for longer than 16 hours, deterioration is rapid, and at 19 to 20 hours of wakefulness, “our mental capacity is as impaired as someone who is legally drunk behind the wheel of a car.”  

The long and short of it is that we need a minimum of 8 hours sleep to repair the damage of wakefulness. In my next newsletter, I will write about natural methods to improve quality and quantity of sleep, but in the meantime consider putting away the computer, and mobile phone, and turning off the television, two hours earlier than you usually do. This quiet time is an ideal preparation for a good nights sleep!