Everyone knows we have to get eight hours of sleep a night but very few of us do. What’s driving this behaviour is that we think we can get away with it. We’ve allowed ourselves to believe it’s something we should do rather than something we need to do. This is wrong, allow me to prove it.
Sleep Your Way Healthy
Insufficient sleep is the most significant risk for Alzheimer’s disease. As outlandish as it sounds, wakefulness is low level brain damage. It is sleep that repairs the brain. If you have ever been severely sleep deprived you may have experienced hallucinations. These hallucinations are the brains attempts to undergo REM phase sleep (dream sleep). Dream sleep is so necessary that without it, sleep deprived people actually dream while they are awake. It is also for this reason that alcoholics hallucinate. After drinking, most people report sleeping well, however alcohol suppresses this phase of sleep – REM sleep (dream sleep). This means that while you may sleep for 8 hours, you don’t get the restorative effects of REM sleep after drinking. Alcoholics hallucinate because they are deprived of dream sleep and dream while awake.
It isn’t just the brain that needs sleep. Sleeping for less than six hours is associated with a 12% increased risk of death. In one study, Adults that slept less than 6 hours each night were 200% more likely to have a heart attack or stroke during their lifetime compared to those who got seven or eight hours. This is why hospitals report a 24% increase in heart attacks when we all lose an hour of sleep after winding the clocks back for daylight savings. When we change the clocks back at the end of daylight savings we all gain an hour of sleep and hospitals see a 21% decrease in heart attacks. That is how susceptible the body is to just one hour of sleep lost or gained!
Performance and Efficiency
We know a lack of sleep makes us slower and decreases cognitive ability. Tests have shown performance with sleep deprivation as bad or worse than someone with a blood alcohol of 0.05%. But wouldn’t we notice if we were going to work drunk all the time? The problem is that sleep deprivation impairs your brain’s ability to assess your own performance and efficiency. So when you’re sleep deprived you’re so incompetent you can’t even see how badly you’re doing. Up to 3% of GDP is lost as a result of lost productivity and health costs due to sleep deprivation every year. In Australia that is $49 billion. So the question is, are we not sleeping enough because we are too busy or are we busy because we are tired and inefficient?
Think of the Children
The effects of sleep deprivation is even greater on school kids. Teenagers have a delayed body clock and require an also extra hour of sleep. In schools that have pushed back their start times to allow students more time for sleep, most of the studies saw a significant increase in sleep duration even with relatively small delays in start times of half an hour. Later start times led to improved attendance and significantly higher exam results for students.
Some studies showed another astonishing effect of delayed school start times. These schools saw a 70% reduction in driving deaths with later start times! Compare that to ABS brakes which are a legal requirement for all new cars sold in Australia; ABS brakes are responsible for a 20-25% reduction in motoring deaths and are considered a revolution in motoring. Allowing students to get a bit of extra sleep before driving to school saved three times as many lives as this automotive revolution. In fact, drowsy driving kills more people than alcohol and drugs combined.
What’s Stopping Us?
The biggest hindrance to us all getting our 8 hours is humanity’s mastery of light. Darkness is the key to us falling asleep as it increases melatonin levels in the body. We are now able to fill our homes with light and screens which keep us alert and entertained. But haven’t adapted our behaviour to this extraordinary technological change. Setting an alarm to turn off your lights early in the night may be a practical solution. We have morning alarms, why can’t we use night time alarms?
Sleep really is bizarre. It is 8 hours of the day we can’t work, build, eat, protect ourselves, look after children and reproduce. It is so inconvenient that if it wasn’t completely necessary the evolutionary process would have eliminated it. Have a think about what you can do to ensure you get a full night of sleep and how productive you might be if you did.
This post was inspired the book Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by neuroscientist and self-styled ‘sleep diplomat’ Matthew Walker, I highly recommend it.
Scott Leabeater is The Backstory Chiropractic’s Principal Chiropractor. Scott uses up to date research literature to guide an evidence based approach to diagnosis and treatment. His unique professionalism and knowledge has made Scott highly sought after. Throughout his career he has treated everyone from local office workers to Olympic athletes. Scott is an AHPRA registered Chiropractor and member of Chiropractic Australia.