Life

Sunday 25 August 2019

Lay of the land: Timely wake-up call: we all need more shut-eye

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared a sleep loss epidemic throughout industrialised nations. Stock image
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared a sleep loss epidemic throughout industrialised nations. Stock image

Fiona O'Connell

Before I upped sticks from 'the big smoke', I used to love taking breaks in the back of beyond, for I enjoyed not just nature but better sleep. Yet now I live in this not so sleepy country town, I often feel tired.

There never seems to be enough hours in the day, as the expression goes, to spend eight of them conked out. Coffee fuels hours spent working on a computer or phone, with a little bit of box sometimes to help switch off before finally going to bed.

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All of which neuroscientist and sleep expert Professor Matthew Walker would view as symptomatic of such a serious, chronic sleep deficit among developed nations that he claims it is ultimately "a slow form of self-euthanasia". Indeed, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared a sleep loss epidemic throughout industrialised nations.

For sleep is a non-negotiable, biological necessity for which Mother Nature has no safety net. Yet two thirds of adults in developed countries fail to obtain the recommended eight hours. Catching up at weekends won't undo the damage (though napping before 3pm can help). What's really scary is that lack of sleep means our minds aren't working well enough to even realise there's a problem.

More than 700 scientific studies support Walker's conclusions in Why We Sleep that "the bedrock of sleep" matters more than diet and exercise. If you insist on staying awake all hours, then prepare to prematurely end up at your own wake. Because "the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life". Sleep loss inflicts devastating effects on the brain, linking it to conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, suicide, stroke and chronic pain, and affects every physiological system of the body, further contributing to countless disorders and disease like cancer, diabetes, heart attacks, infertility, weight gain, obesity, and immune deficiency.

Yet we glamorise not getting enough shut-eye, with New York lauded as 'the city that never sleeps'. Making it an appropriate location for 1980s movie Wall Street, in which Gordon Gekko summed up the zeitgeist with his quip "lunch is for wimps".

Whereas today, it seems sleep is for lazy slobs. From Fine Gael branding itself as the party for those who get up early - grossly unfair to night owls, Walker would argue - to role models of little rest Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who Walker points out both developed Alzheimer's.

Like a waking nightmare, we are the only species who deliberately deprives ourselves of sleep. Despite the fact that, as far as the science is concerned, "wakefulness is low-level brain damage". So maybe take a snooze after reading the Sunday Independent. Because it's not so much a matter of "turn on, tune in, drop out" - as turn in, tune out, drop off. Sweet dreams.

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