Little did we know that our world was about to change forever as my daughter decided, two weeks ahead of schedule at precisely 4 am, to start her journey into the world. After a blur of activity and lots of colourful language, she was born in record time less than two hours later.
It was the happiest day, along with my wedding day, of my life. I did not notice how tired I was until the following day when I “hit the wall” as marathon runners put it. Months before, I had been paying close attention when all the helpful, fervent and copious advice began, with loved ones (and strangers on the bus) telling us how our lives were going to change. Often the big headline was the lack of sleep. Some were practically giddy at the prospect, these were clearly embattled parents who had gone through their own ordeal and had an understandable touch of Schadenfreude. The fact that everyone highlighted this aspect of early parenting shows just how important it is to all of us, lack of sleep is something we painfully remember when we don’t get enough.
Research has shown that it is with good reason we feel this way. Short changing ourselves from the optimal seven or eight hours of sleep per night has been demonstrated across numerous studies to compromise our mental and physical health and could even shorten our lifespans. It is estimated sleep loss costs the UK economy £30 billion a year in lost revenue. The Director of the Centre Human Sleep Science at University of California, Matthew Walker has shown there are powerful links between sleep loss and cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer’s disease and mental health.
If like many people you catch a cold most years, it would be a good idea to start getting a good night’s rest. In a study of 153 men and women, lead by Sheldon Cohen at Carnegie Mellon University, found those who sleep less than 7 hours a night were three times as likely to develop cold symptoms than those sleeping 8 hours or more. The recommendation is 8 hours of sleep and sleep deprivation is classified as anything less than 7 hours.
Sleep specialists have found that if we only sleep 4 to 5 hours then the levels of our “natural killer cells” (a vital part of our immune system) that attack cancer cells drop by 70%. This is why a lack of sleep has been linked to cancer of the bowel, prostate and breast and the World Health Organisation has classed night time work as a probable carcinogen. 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 people who sleep seven or eight hours per night.
The main reason is the effect on blood pressure, just one night of reduced sleep can speed up heart rate and raise blood pressure. Sleep reduction also affects the body’s control of sugar levels by becoming less responsive to insulin. People become more susceptible to weight gain and increasing sensations of hunger. Reduced sleep over a lifetime is linked with Alzheimer’s as the brains ability to remove toxins is reduced.
Widespread sleep deprivation seems to be a modern problem. In 1942 less than 8% of population was surviving on six hours or less, whereas studies in 2017 showed this had risen to almost one in two. We electrified the night, since light profoundly degrades sleep, by staying up with the lights burning we shortened our rest. Other factors have played their part; longer working hours, longer commutes, people spending more time on entertainment, all result in sleep being sacrificed. So the big question is how does this affect you dear reader?
A good indicator is whether you could sleep through your alarm. If the answer is yes you’re probably sleep deprived. At 10 am you should be at peak energy, so if you need caffeine to get through the day you’re probably not getting enough rest. Some simple but great advice is try to avoid long hours at work and bin the weekend all-nighter. If you’re awake longer than 19 hours you’re cognitively impaired. View sleep as going to the gym. You have one alarm to wake up and why not try one alarm to indicate you need to start cycling down. It is called midnight, in other words “middle of the night” for a reason, you should have been in bed hours ago. Try to get into a routine of going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. Outlaw mobile and LED emitting devices (which reduce melatonin; the sleep-inducing hormone) from the bedroom especially with teenagers hooked on Instagram and Snapchat. I hope this has been informative and entertaining, I wish you all the best in your quest for a healthy night’s sleep. Sleep well.
Written by Anthony McEwan
Osteopath at the Centre for Complimentary Health.