Sleep: make time for bed
In many parts of the world our quantity, and quality, of sleep has been seriously eroded over the past few decades. Our ‘long hours’ business culture, the internet, social media and of course technology has left many of us feeling we must be available 24/7, while others spend what should be sleep time as general playtime.
The idea that ‘burning the candle at both ends’ is bad for us is nothing new, but research over the past twenty years has marked the beginning of a deeper scientific understanding of how vital sleep is to our health. So much so that Professor Matthew Walker in his book, Why We Sleep, has pronounced sleep not just one of the three pillars of good health, alongside diet and exercise, but the foundation upon which the other two rest.
With the average adult in the UK only getting some 6hr 49min of sleep per night during the week, with people in Japan and the US surviving on even less on 6hr 22 min and 6hr 31 min respectively, according to a 2013 study by the US National Sleep Foundation, it’s no exaggeration to suggest diet and exercise regimes designed to improve our health are being squandered by too little sleep.
Indeed many researchers believe that enough sleep is quite simply the difference between life or early death. More than 20 large-scale epidemiological studies reported the same clear relationship: the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life.
How much sleep do we need?
Generally we should aim for at least 7-8 hours’ sleep per night, so at first the idea of getting by on 5-6 hours might not seem too bad. Why not stay up late to answer just a few more emails? Or watch the final episode of a favourite TV program? We might be prepared to put up with the irritability, loss of concentration and poor response time too little sleep can cause, because we can always catch-up with power-naps during the day or lie-in’s over the weekend or on vacation, can’t we?
The sleep deficit problem
Worryingly, recent research suggests any ‘sleep deficit’ (when we get less than our eight hours) can never be recovered. So, with each sleep deprived night we clock up, we are creating a sleep debt we can never pay back – and one that science now says comes with big costs to our health.
Unhealthy sleep, unhealthy heart
Just a little sleep deprivation boosts blood pressure, while also causing an overactive sympathetic nervous system, which in turn can cause further cardiovascular problems. Yet a full nights sleep has the opposite effect, helping to heal and maintain the cardiovascular system.
Sleep loss and metabolism
The less you sleep, the more you are likely to eat. As our bodies also end up less able to deal with sugar in our blood, research also suggests sleeping less than 7-8 hours a night will increase your probability of gaining weight, being overweight, obese and of course the likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes.
Sleep loss and the immune system
Sleep fights against infection and sickness, so much so that when you fall ill, the immune system actively stimulates the sleep system, demanding rest to help the body fight its way back to health. In addition a number of epidemiological studies have reported that nighttime shift work, and the disruption to circadian rhythms and sleep it causes, raises the odds of developing numerous forms of cancer, including associations with cancer of the breast, prostate, uterus wall and the colon. Indeed, scientific evidence linking sleep disruption and cancer is so damning the World Health Organisation has officially classified nighttime shift work as a ‘probable carcinogen’.
With higher risk of Alzheimer’s another factor, it is no surprise that ensuring a good night’s sleep should be a priority. So when it’s time for bed, try the following:
- Create a bed time routine that suits you and stick to it
- Don’t drink anything stimulating for at least a couple of hours beforehand
- Remove smart phones, tablets or other gadgets from the bedroom
For more fascinating insights into the importance of sleep I highly recommend, Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker
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