The sleep-deprived: sleeping with the fishes?

Neuroscience Explained

Imagine what being asleep, oblivious to the whole world passing you by, for one whole year would be like. Think of that, and the thirty-or-so years you’ll have spent sleeping by the time you reach the end of your life start to seem like an unfathomably long time. Sleep is a strange and fascinating thing. We physically cannot go without it. It takes up so much of our time, yet we still don’t actually know why we do it. After looking into this, including watching sleep scientist Russell Foster’s talk about sleep in the video above (worth a watch if you’ve got time!), I was surprised to discover just how little your average person ‘really’ knows, or thinks they know about this enigmatic bodily function.

It’s worrying just how blasé we are about sleep, when it’s so vital to our quality of life. Now, I’ve got nothing against living your life to the full: I’m not petitioning that we all be tucked up in bed as soon as night descends. But it seems to me that we could all benefit from a little more shut-eye now-and-again rather than letting the fear of missing out (‘FOMO’ to those of you who are down with the acronym-loving, hash-tagging kids) keep you awake.

While research has yet to show us conclusively what exactly sleep does for us, we all intrinsically ‘know’ that we feel good after a good night’s sleep, and that we’re unlikely to be feeling our best after an all-nighter. We also ‘know’ that not getting enough sleep is bad for us – and while research hasn’t yet shown us what sleep does, there is a lot which tells us what happens to us when we don’t get enough sleep and the truth is a lot more startling than getting caught sleeping at your desk.

Unsurprisingly, long-term effects of regular sleep deprivation are linked to all the usual deadly suspects: type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardio-vascular disease, stroke, high blood pressure and heart attacks. Prolonged lack of sleep often triggers stress and weight gain which are associated with all these health problems. In order to continue to stay awake, the brain will crave things which enable it to do so: stimulants (caffeine, nicotine), alcohol (to counteract the stimulants when you’re finally trying to get to sleep later on), and food high in sugar and fat. Other immediate effects of sleep-deprivation include: increased risk-taking and impulsive behaviour, memory impairment, poor judgement and poor creativity (there’s a reason why there are so many historical accounts of great innovative thoughts, inventions and creations which occurred while the brain responsible was asleep, dreaming or just waking up!). With all this, staying up past bed-time might seem like a dangerous idea, but the consequences don’t just stop at your own health.

To rather state the obvious, lack of sleep makes us tired and drowsy. When tired you might find yourself plagued by uncontrollable micro-sleeps. This is the act of falling asleep without realising for a short period of time – from seconds to a few minutes – only to be woken when your muscles start to relax: the classic ‘nodding off’ action. Now, apart from the perils of unsympathetic friends drawing on your face, the odd micro-sleep whilst sat at the back of a stuffy lecture theatre may not sound too hazardous; but place your micro-sleeping self behind the wheel of a car, perhaps on a motorway, and things start to look a bit more serious when there’s more at stake than marker-pen moustaches. Every year in the UK, there is a notable increase in road traffic accidents – around 20% – the day after the clocks change for daylight-saving. Interestingly, this increase occurs both when the clocks go ‘forward’ and ‘back’, and not just after the switch to summertime when we lose an hour’s sleep. It is telling that disrupting sleep by just one hour for one night is enough to cause such damage. We are beginning to become more aware of the harm sleep-deprivation can cause, with ‘Tiredness Kills, Take A Break’ signs springing up more and more on our roads, but society is yet to universally frown upon driving tired in the same way as we do with regard to driving drunk.

If you’ve read this far, you may well be wondering who I am to be admonishing you that ‘it’s way past your bedtime’ like every nagging parent since the dawn of time. Having read my cautionary words of gloom and doom you may decide to carry on exactly as you are and do absolutely nothing different. This is an opinion you are perfectly entitled to, but the important point is that at least the decision to do so is now an informed one. I’m sure you’ll agree that, far scarier than any of the consequences I’ve sagely listed in this post, is the fact that so many people just don’t know what the consequences of being regularly sleep deprived are, beyond feeling a bit ‘rough’. In this case, ignorance is not bliss, and what you don’t know may well hurt you.

In our modern, 24-hour society we have a strange, almost brutal attitude towards sleep that contributes to this ignorance. There’s an almost heroic respect attached to those who frequently forgo sleep in the name of work, leisure or both. What is really unsettling is that many of these champions of wakefulness, the most sleep-deprived people, are found in important roles, often requiring life-or-death decisions: politicians, pilots, medical professionals and nuclear power plant engineers are just a few named examples. Industrial disasters, such as Chernobyl, notoriously occur in the small hours of the morning, and have often been linked to sleep-deprived workers. Given the choice, would you really want the pilot of your holiday flight micro-sleeping over the controls? Your surgeon nodding off over your burst appendix?

The negative attitude towards sleep doesn’t just apply to those in the corridors of power and positions of responsibility. If you’re not one of them, just think back to the last time you declined a night out with friends because you were ‘too tired’, and the reaction which that ‘excuse’ might have elicited. People who get enough sleep are boring, they’re not risk-takers (even the research says so!), they need to live a little, right?

I may be wrong, but perhaps life ought not to be experienced as one long bleary-eyed stumble from one early morning meeting to the next late night party like the victim of a zombie apocalypse. Or at least not all of the time. I can’t help wondering about all that we might stand to gain – not least from a health perspective – and appreciate, in occasionally approaching life with eyes not propped open by caffeine or wide with that terrible fear of missing out. It’s time we all took a good long look at the way we perceive sleep.

So think on that – you might even want to reach for your duvet and sleep on it.

(And so it begins! I can only apologise in advance for the shameless puns that will inevitably follow in the titles of many future posts about sleep. But who doesn’t love a good pun? At least I had the creativity and good grace not to immediately resort to Shakespeare – that man sure had a lot to say about sleep.)