How many hours should you sleep? Most of us would answer ‘seven to eight hours, if not more’. But when asked how many hours we actually sleep, some of us may cringe or even look away as we whisper under our breath, ‘probably less than seven hours, if not less’.
‘Good news! There has been an amazing breakthrough! Scientists have discovered a revolutionary new treatment that makes you live longer. It enhances your memory and makes you more creative. It makes you look more attractive. It keeps you slim and lowers food cravings. It protects you from cancer and dementia. It wards off colds and flu. It lowers your risk of heart attacks and stroke, not to mention diabetes. You will even feel happier, less depressed, and less anxious. Are you interested?’
The above is from Mathew Walker, a researcher and author of the book Why we sleep in which he likens sleep to a miracle pill for which many would kill.
Most of us know that if we do not sleep enough, we will be tired, grumpy and downright miserable the next day, and that does not even account for the lack of productivity, falling asleep behind the wheel and nodding off at a meeting or presentation. Most of us can relate. Yet, why do we not sleep enough? In an online article published by the University of California, Berkeley, Yasmin Anwar provides some food for thought as she attempts to answer this question. ‘Feel like you don’t have enough time to sleep because you have too much to do?
Consider the more likely alternative that you have too much to do because your lack of sleep tanks your productivity.’
The consequences of not sleeping are well documented. The frontal lobe of the brain appears to be most affected, leading to a deficit of what is called ‘executive function’. Apart from the nagging feeling of somnolence, sleep deprivation manifests as distractibility and difficulty concentrating (for instance swiping up and down on Facebook becomes more fun than completing a task that requires painstaking attention), not being able to keep track of a sequence of events, loss of lateral or out-of-the-box thinking and difficulty communicating and expressing oneself. It is more difficult to assess risk and anticipate consequences when the mind is sleep deprived. Not only can one become more uninhibited (much like when consuming alcohol), but one tends to exaggerate one’s abilities. The frontal lobe is also the seat of one’s personality and its wellbeing is responsible for mood and memory too.
Scientists and researchers now know that people who are chronically sleep-deprived (which includes most of us) and who depend on stimulants such as caffeine lose their ability to realise their cognitive impairment. Over time, such people condition themselves to believe that they are still functioning at their optimal and that the constant brain fog that clouds their judgement becomes their normal. The result is a vicious cycle in which the worsening cognitive impairment and decreasing productivity lead to more time being required to complete the same number of tasks, but which ultimately chews into valuable sleep time. And so the cycle goes on. Welcome to modern living: chronic sleep deprivation, increased reliance on stimulants, and a gradual yet noticeable decline in health.
Lack of sleep has also been linked to decreased immunity. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Infection and Public Health showed an increased risk of contracting the common cold if we slept than six hours per night. Less than five hours of shut-eye was linked to an increased risk of contracting pneumonia. The greater the sleep deprivation, the greater the risk of errors and potentially debilitating, if not fatal, accidents. Adverse effects on cardiovascular and brain health (particularly developing neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s in which sleep rids the brain of proteins that otherwise accumulate within our cells). A study published in Diabetes Care identified a link between sleep deprivation and diabetes as well as other hormonal imbalances. Those not sleeping enough are at risk of developing a host of eye problems later in life. It is also not great for your vanity as your skin can age prematurely. Need I even mention the dark circles under the eyes and the unsightly wrinkles?
There are two myths that that should be debunked. Sleep experts confirm that we are all unique when it comes to sleeping preferences. So yes, the early bird – those preferring to go to bed early and rise early – versus the night owl – those preferring to hit the sack much later and start their days a bit later – do exist. These preferences can be attributed in part to our genetic makeup and behavioural patterns, particularly during our younger years. However, the adverse effects of sleep deprivation exist equally in both groups of people. Moreover, it has been shown that we can shift our preferences if desired – with some effort the night owl can become an early bird.
While some frown upon afternoon naps, calling it a weakness or laziness, Winston Churchill and John F Kennedy practised this ritual almost daily. Churchill swore that it allowed him to get two days’ work done in a day. If you have the luxury of taking a short nap in the afternoon and if it does not affect your ability to sleep at night, go ahead and treat yourself to that afternoon nap. Not only will you feel refreshed, you will also benefit from a late-afternoon productivity and mood boost.
Building a good sleep routine takes dedication and commitment. It is often referred to as sleep etiquette. On the right are some tips from Mathew Walker on how you can improve your sleep. Go ahead and treat yourself to a true panacea. Not just tonight, every night!