A neuroscientist explains the truth about sleep deprivation and how it affects your health and wellbeing

There is one basic statement one can make about all of us: human beings are complex. And complex as we are, we complicate everything in life. Even something as simple and pleasurable as sleep.

Think about it: we don’t need a degree to learn how to sleep. All babies sleep. Yet we unlearn sleep so quickly: modern parents keep babies awake for hours and small children are not put down for a sleep in the afternoon anymore and young children are allowed to stay up very late.

Society associates sleep with not being busy doing something. Not being productive. Being lazy. And this attitude is exacerbated later in life by employers and work pressure that follow us home on our smartphones where we fall into bed far too late.

We are paying a potentially fatal price for chronic lack of sleep.

A “catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic” is causing a host of potentially fatal diseases, according to a sleep expert writing in the Guardian.

In an interview with the Guardian, Professor Matthew Walker, director of the Centre for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, discussed the powerful links between sleep loss and serious conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity and poor mental health.

“No aspect of our biology is left unscathed by sleep deprivation,” he says. “It sinks down into every possible nook and cranny. And yet no one is doing anything about it.”

How are we consciously jeopardizing our sleep?

First, we electrified the night, and light is a profound degrader of our sleep, says Walker. Also, the blurring of the line between work and personal time and longer commuting times mean that we have less time to spend with family or on personal chores. The result is that we give up sleep in order to have time for a personal life.

“And anxiety plays a part. We’re a lonelier, more depressed society. Alcohol and caffeine are more widely available. All these are the enemies of sleep.”

We have turned sleep into an enemy.

“We have stigmatised sleep with the label of laziness. We want to seem busy, and one way we express that is by proclaiming how little sleep we’re getting. It’s a badge of honour.”

And that’s not all. We are critical of people sleeping who say they sleep eight hours or more, thinking secretly that they are lazy. We know that babies need their sleep, but we forget that notion when we grow up, says Walker.

This is crazy.

Humans are the only species that deliberately deprive themselves of sleep for no apparent reason!

What’s the bottom line?

Get enough sleep or prepare for an early grave.

According to Walker, more than 20 large scale epidemiological studies all report the same clear relationship: the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life, reports The Guardian.

Just looking at everything that can go wrong. It’s enough to make you head for your bed immediately.

Adults aged 45 years or older who sleep less than six hours a night are 200% more likely to have a heart attack or stroke in their lifetime, compared to those of us sleeping seven or eight hours a night.

A lack of sleep also has a negative impact on the body’s ability to control blood sugar and the optimal functioning of the immune system. Getting too little sleep throughout your life will also significantly raise your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

What to do?

Well, obviously we should get more sleep, but for that to happen, we should change our attitude about sleep. Walker suggests that we start thinking about sleep as a kind of work, like going to the gym.

And how about this? He suggests setting a bedtime alarm to remind us that we have an half an hour to wind down before bed.

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