You’re probably not getting enough sleep. Seriously, I bet you a tumbler of Horlicks and a Jane Austen tenner that you’re not. Sleep deprivation is alarmingly common. If you get six hours or less a night, if you could naturally sleep past your alarm in the morning, or if you can’t function without caffeine before noon, then you are not getting the quality or quantity of sleep you need. It’s probably making you less productive, less creative and less physically attractive. And putting your health in serious danger. But – and I’ll take another bet on this one – you’re probably not doing anything about it.
A new book called Why We Sleep: The New Science Of Sleep And Dreams, by leading sleep scientist Professor Matthew Walker, reveals precisely how dangerous sleep deprivation can be. It makes us vulnerable to heart attack, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, cancer and mental illness. Basically, the less sleep we get, the shorter our lives will be.
Getting a decent night’s sleep is pretty straightforward, unless you’re suffering from a disorder. Professor Walker has some very simple tips: go to bed every night and get up every morning at the same time, avoid looking at a screen before bed, turn off the lights and get proper darkness to trigger the release of the sleep hormone melatonin, set the temperature in your room to 18 degrees, drink your last coffee at 2pm, reduce alcohol intake, ban all-nighters, give up on sleeping pills and don’t binge-sleep at weekends to make up for short sleeping during the week, because it doesn’t work that way.
Heard all these tips before? Yeah, me, too. And yet I frequently find myself dazed and hollow during the day because I haven’t had enough sleep. We all know sleep is important – lie awake at 4am one time and it’s painfully obvious how much it affects our ability to function as human beings. And yet we continue to commit all sorts of bedtime sins: we stare at our phones right up until we switch off the light, overheat our homes, work too long, commute too far, answer emails from bed, drink coffee at all times of the day and night, and still believe in the power of a nightcap. We flagrantly disregard all of the best sleep-hygiene tips because we simply do not take them seriously enough to bother altering our behaviour. We, as a society, have an appallingly nonchalant attitude towards sleep. Or, worse, a wilfully negative one.
It isn’t noble or heroic to lose sleep because you have an important job or an unmissable gig or an insatiable brain
We tend to associate sleep with slothfulness, greed and a lack of ambition or motivation. We chastise our teenagers for needing to sleep in, we force our night owls into work schedules that don’t suit their natural circadian rhythm, we roll our eyes at anyone who goes out of their way to consistently get eight hours a night. We have a serious sleep-shaming problem and we insist that under-sleeping – if people are too busy or too important to get the proper shut-eye – is somehow admirable (rather than, say, gravely dangerous).
“I think we sometimes, in society at large and even in the home, embrace and celebrate not getting enough sleep. Instead, we stigmatise sleep with this label of laziness. And that’s a terrible thing to do,” says Professor Walker. “We often laud the noble warrior who has flown through six different time zones in the past four days, was on email at two o’clock and is back in the office at seven o’clock the next morning and we think they’re heroic and they walk around with this badge of honour on their arm of sleep deprivation as if it’s something to be proud of. We so need to change our attitude.”
Insufficient sleep costs most countries about two per cent of their GDP. For the UK, that’s somewhere around £30bn lost just because people aren’t sleeping well enough. If we can’t do it for our own energy and sanity levels, perhaps it’s time to get brutal about the economic implications of sleep deprivation. It isn’t noble or heroic to lose sleep because you have an important job or an unmissable gig or an insatiable brain. At the moment, it’s just another way our obsession with busyness manifests – but it’s dangerous and it’s silly. We’ve got to stop sleep-shaming the people who go to bed on time, who have their last coffee at midday, who keep their work emails at bay out of hours, who leave parties early enough to get some sleep. Sleep deprivation is slowly killing us – is it really worth it, for the fleeting sense of invincibility or misguided admiration you get?
Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams is published by Allen Lane