HOW did you sleep last night? Are you longing for a nap just to take the edge off your fatigue? Perhaps you have been burning the candle at both ends or you may regard sleep as something of an inconvenience in an age when we are rarely able, or indeed willing, to switch off.
Margaret Thatcher said she got by on four hours. It would seem then that sleep, like lunch, is for wimps. Indeed Thomas Edison, the developer of the electric lightbulb, insisted: “Sleep is a criminal waste of time.”
Not so, according to Russell Foster, Professor of Circadian Neuroscience at the University of Oxford. He explains: “We squeeze more and more into the day and with the demands of e-mail and work, sleep is always the first victim.
“Because we don’t really understand the importance of sleep it is so easy not to sleep.
“It is all part of the way we essentially marginalise the importance of sleep. Thirty six per cent of our lives will be spent asleep. If you lived to 90 that is 32 years. It is telling us that sleep, at some level, is important, yet we don’t give it a second thought. It is remarkable.
“Over the past 50 years the 24-hour nature of our lives which includes a culture of longer working hours, more shift work, long commutes and enhanced global communication means that sleep comes far too low in our priorities.”
Professor Foster is the subject of a forthcoming BBC Radio 4 programme, The Life Scientific, with fellow scientist and presenter Jim Al-Khalili.
Determined to get sleep and its importance into a wider national debate, he argues that sleep disruption and reduced sleep is causing often avoidable health problems.
In their book, Sleep: A Very Short Introduction, Professor Foster and Steven Lockley assert: “People who experience reduced sleep (six hours or less) are at a higher risk of having high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease and die more often from heart attacks than people who report sleeping longer (usually seven or eight hours).”
It makes for depressing reading given how little thought we give to our sleep patterns. Indeed the many possible consequences of a lack of sleep and the disruption of our 24-hour rhythms include cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.
There are links to changes in mood, anxiety and depression and a decrease in our mental performance and concentration. We may gain weight, become increasingly irritable and prone to taking risks as fatigue impairs our judgment.
On average a baby will sleep 16 hours a day, an adult eight hours while the elderly will often get by on as little as five-and-a-half hours.
Rather than guess our way when it comes to sleep the professor wants a more formal approach to reassessing our attitude to sleep. “It would be really useful to get together educationalists and industrialists who are actually at the sharp end dealing with the practical problems and sit them down with us biologists and see where we can make adjustments,” he says.
“It would be naive of me to say that the biology must force a new structure on society…we cannot do that… but where we can make adjustments, then we should.
“We could develop some packages of good sleep practice that we could give to different age groups: prepuberty, puberty and our ageing community. I don’t think it is rocket science.
“We know enough now to be able to write something that would have real meaning and real impact.”
It is tragic because we could be capable of so much more if we actually just allowed the brain what it needs to function properly
Russell Foster, Professor of Circadian Neuroscience at the University of Oxford
Recalling a visit to an after-school club and seeing how many of the pupils were falling asleep, he says: “We are investing in all of this and yet the kids aren’t getting enough sleep to take advantage of these educational opportunities. It was sobering, I was quite shocked.
“We give young people so much education about personal hygiene and sex hygiene, yet we give them no information or instruction at all on how to improve their quality of life by sleeping better.”
Nevertheless, Professor Foster became a hero to teenagers when he suggested that schools would do better if they started their lessons at 10am, insisting that pupils need nine to nine-and-a-half hours’ sleep a night but are existing on far less. Having televisions, mobile phones and computers in their bedrooms does not help.
He also considers the treatment of shift workers and people in care homes and hospitals as not conducive to sleep.
Professor Foster recalls how a colleague increased light in the communal day areas of a Dutch care home, darkened the bedrooms and saw the residents’ mental ability rise 10 per cent as their sleep patterns improved.
Shift workers and the problems they face in our modern working environments are a particular passion of his. “We are not going to put the 24/7 genie back in its bottle, but knowing that night-shift workers have higher rates of cardiovascular disease, have suppressed immune systems and higher rates of cancer, and knowing that they have problems digesting certain things, then we should be tailoring the appropriate foods for night-shift workers.”
In other words, he advocates encouraging night workers to eat lower-fat, healthier food rather than the quick fix of fat-laden, sugar-loaded foods that many often consume.
A good night’s sleep can vastly improve our memory. He says: “Memory is hugely disrupted if you don’t get enough sleep. You can’t lay down memory and you can’t recall it. If you want to come up with new solutions to complex problems then a night of sleep can enormously help you to do this.”
The phrase “sleeping on it” has never made more sense he says.
“Our society is more dependant than ever on our ability to come up with constructive and novel solutions to complex problems and yet the one part of our biology that enormously enhances us to do that is affected by our complete negligence regarding sleep.
“We are blessed with the most complicated structure in the known universe: our brain, which is capable of such creativity and such amazing behaviours, yet we are treating it like an old football that we are kicking around.
“It is tragic because we could be capable of so much more if we actually just allowed the brain what it needs to function properly.”