Sleep: the dangers of not getting enough

How did you sleep last night? Poorly? Badly? Not at all? It seems that most of us suffer from disrupted sleep at best and chronic insomnia at worst. Developed countries are in the grip of a 21st century sleep-loss epidemic, whereby only about a third of inhabitants manage the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended 8 hours a night. In the 2016 report Waking up to the health benefits of sleep for The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), the UK public is under-sleeping by an average of almost an hour every night, which amounts to losing an entire night’s sleep every week!

And according to a recent survey of women for The Sunday Times Style magazine, only 12% of those surveyed managed the WHO recommended hours, and overall averaged only 5 hours 18 minutes per night. I’m now keeping a sleep diary for 30 days to check my own deprived sleep record!

Why is sleep so important?

The 2016 RSPH report declared sleep to be as vital for survival and health as food and water, and described in detail the links between, and impact of, lack of and poor sleep in the 4 key areas with examples below.

Physical health: risk of cancer; heart disease; stroke; obesity; diabetes….
Mental health: risk of mood fluctuation; anger and frustration; chronic fatigue; depression; psychiatric problems…
Behaviour: risk of road traffic collisions; falls and fractures; alcohol and drug (including sedative) dependency……
Performance: risk of poor attention and concentration; decreased memory; impaired decision making; reduced socialisation…..

Sleep expert Matthew Walker, author of Why We Sleep explains, “…sleep essentially provides a form of emotional first aid. It’s a soothing nocturnal balm that takes the sharp edge off the painful sting of emotional experiences during the day. It also recalibrates the brain systems that control our emotions so that we come back the next day and we’re a little more stable. It sort of resets the magnetic north of our emotional compass.”

For some, insomnia can be short term: disrupted sleep for a few nights a week which often goes away; or chronic: disrupted sleep for at least 3 nights a week for at least 3 months. But for others it can last a lifetime. The bottom line is that sleep deprivation makes us feel lousy: in the UK, sleep deprivation represents the second most common health complaint after pain.

Why can’t we sleep?

Stress and anxiety in our daily life, whether related to work/career issues; relationships, family, parenting; money worries; physical or mental health, prevent us from dropping off to sleep, wake us up and keep us awake. But our bad bedtime and bedroom habits are now known to contribute too – staying up too late, late night snacking and drinking alcohol/ coffee, watching TV or using a mobile phone or tablet (with blue screen light) or reading in bed – are all well-documented!

Ironically, the problems and concerns that cause our sleep disruption and deprivation in the first place, can be exacerbated by the impact of lack of sleep on our emotional, mental and physical health and behaviour, at home and at work. And anyone who has tried to sleep in vain for only one night, will know the stress and frustration that causes, in turn contributing further to our inability to get to sleep. Sleep disruption and deprivation can catch us in a vicious, repetitive circle.

What we can do about it

It goes without saying that anyone who is suffering with chronic insomnia needs to take it and the potential consequences seriously. Start by trying to identify/acknowledge the stress that is causing the sleeplessness and seek professional, and any other, help needed to get back on track, and back to sleep.

Writing in The Sunday Times Magazine last weekend about his own stress-related insomnia (and subsequent breakdown), the broadcaster Tom Bradbury documented the range of practical solutions that helped him on the road to recovery. These included psychiatric help, dietary advice, meditation, yoga, antidepressants, positive thinking and new sleep habits: switching the phone off and putting it away for the night; avoiding alcohol; turning off the TV 90 minutes before bed and instead listening to calming music and doing yoga exercises.

Just over a year ago I realised I needed to actually tackle my latest bout of nightly disrupted sleep – I regularly woke up in the early hours to go to the loo and then never got back to sleep again. Like Tom Bradbury I discovered the Calm App, in particular the Sleep Stories for grown-ups, read by people with mellifluous voices (some of them famous) and covering a wide range of subjects. I was pleasantly surprised at how effective they were and how quickly I drifted off. A mark of their success for me was that I never knew the end of the story! After only a few weeks I had trained myself to go to sleep on cue the moment the story started.

I also gradually changed a few other things. I had already joined a yoga group, I stopped watching TV in bed at night, and I programmed an alarm to tell me to get ready for bed at a specific time. Last summer I took further steps to improve my wellbeing and thus my sleeping duration and quality, by embarking on a gut-cleanse, increasing the amount of regular exercise I did each week and taking an online meditation course. This all actually helped me to be more relaxed whenever sleep disruption occurs. Rather than stressing out and counting the waking hours, I calmly make a cup of tea/ read a book for a bit and then choose another sleep story to lull me back into slumber.

Our modern lives are full of stress, anxiety, the distractions of the digitally connected world and the need to be ‘available’ 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Many of us are denying our minds and bodies the vital rest and recuperation that sleep provides, that we cannot function effectively without. We need to look after ourselves better, tackle our stress and get back to good sleep habits in order to survive. And keep the bedroom for sleeping…..oh and intimacy if you are lucky.

Christine Ingall
28 May 2019