Putting in those late nights at the office might be damaging your health. Staying up doing homework into the early hours of the morning might be putting your body under just as much pressure as excessive stress, eating or the ingestion of illicit substances. In his recent Why We Sleep (2017), leading neuroscientist Prof Matthew Walker, currently the founder and head of the Centre for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, argues that sleep deprivation increases the risk of cancer, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, poor mental health and Alzheimer’s disease. The Centre’s goal is to understand everything about the relationship between sleep and the human body, work that has led Walker to argue that we are in the middle of a “catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic”.
Walker argues that sleep deprivation constitutes anything less than seven hours a night, and he believes in his case to such an extent that he recommends government intervention. He feels that if people were more aware of the link between poor health and a lack of sleep, they would be more inclined to recommend it as a vital aspect of our lifestyles. In Walker’s opinion, “No aspect of our biology is left unscathed by sleep deprivation…And yet no one is doing anything about it. Things have to change: in the workplace and our communities, our homes and families. But when did you ever see an NHS poster urging sleep on people? When did a doctor prescribe, not sleeping pills, but sleep itself? It needs to be prioritised, even incentivised. Sleep loss costs the UK economy over £30bn a year in lost revenue, or 2% of GDP. I could double the NHS budget if only they would institute policies to mandate or powerfully encourage sleep.”
So how did we become so sleep deprived? Walker blames, among other things, the electrification of the night (as light degrades sleep), porous boundaries between work and rest, longer commutes, anxiety, loneliness, depression, the pervasive use of caffeine and alcohol, and our own internal struggle with time management. Why give up time with your friends, an extra hour spent on an important project, or a delicious meal with your family, when you could give up sleep instead? Perhaps the most worrying trend is that sleep is becoming increasingly associated with weakness. We all know the workhorses in the classroom and boardroom. They are Trojans, Stakhanovites, and successful purely because of the long hours they put in, right? We stigmatise sleep, label laziness and beatify business. Despite what you’ve heard, nobody can survive on less than five hours of sleep a night, and with two-thirds of adults in developed nations fail to obtain the nightly eight hours of sleep encouraged by the World Health Organisation, we recommend a deeper knowledge of Hypnos and Morpheus.
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