As we fast approach the third week of the semester, still fighting to successfully adapt to university life (aka rain, library and coffee – lots of), many have already met a familiar foe, sleep deprivation. Writing this article at 2am, spacing sentences out with repeated yawns and occasional back-and-forth wanders in my room, I have to sadly admit I am myself one of those tired, sleep-deprived individuals.
When talking about sleep, Matthew Walker is the person to quote. Director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, he has spent the past twenty years studying sleep’s impact on humans. Utterly concerned about what he describes as a ‘catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic’, Walker believes that the consequences of sleep deprivation (getting less than six nightly hours of sleep) are far graver than many of us could imagine.
The notorious professor wrote ‘Why We Sleep’, a complete, terrifying guide to why we should all give up parties (and procrastination), and go to bed early. When I say terrifying, I absolutely mean it: the book traces links between sleep loss and, among other things, cancer, diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer’s disease, and poor mental health. It is claimed that, for example, just a night of four or five hours sleep determines a drop by 70% of our natural killer cells – those that attack the cancer cells that daily appear in our body. Furthermore, Walker explains that Alzheimer’s is more likely developed in sleep deprived individuals. The reasons for this have to do with the amyloid deposits, a toxin protein that accumulates in the brains of those suffering from the disease, killing the surrounding cells. Such deposits are cleaned from the brain during deep sleep, and, likewise, without sufficient sleep, these plaques build up, especially in the deep-sleep-generating regions. The loss of deep sleep caused by such accumulation also lessens our ability to remove the plaques from the brain night – starting a vicious cycle (more amyloid, less deep sleep; less deep sleep, more amyloid).
Sleep loss also has an impact on mental health. It is right to say that everything will look better in the morning: deep sleep is a therapeutic state during which we make our experiences easier to bear by casting off their emotional charge. In addition, sleep deprivation influences our mood, by determining a 60% amplification in the reactivity of the amygdala, which triggers anger and rage.
Last but not least, not getting enough rest sadly makes us more susceptible to weight-gain by altering the levels of some of our hormones (no, sleeping more won’t be enough of a remedy to Freshers’ Fifteen).
Contemplating the evident shadows beneath my eyes (a recurrence in the past five years), now very aware that they are only a tiny visible hint of something much more serious, I cannot help but think Walker is right about being very concerned. It is interesting to consider that this worrying situation has arised in the past century, as in 1942, less than 8% of the population was trying to survive on six hours (or less) sleep a night, while currently almost one in two people is. Why is this? Probably because we are in an era where no one wants to miss out, to give out leisure time with family and friends, and so we simply sleep less. Caffeine also plays a part, and so does the fact that we are a lonelier, more depressed society. On top of this, nowadays sleep is somehow associated with concepts such as weakness, laziness, and waste of time. We want to show we are busy, and we often do so by proclaiming how little sleep we are getting.
As Walker claims, “No aspect of our biology is left unscathed by sleep deprivation”, and the evidence he provides should be enough to send us all to bed early. However, if this is still not the case, at least we should try and forget the “all-nighters”: after being awake for 19 hours, we are as cognitively impaired as someone who is drunk. Plus, if ‘enjoy life while it lasts’ is your philosophy, you may want to reconsider your position: sleep deprived adults aged 45 years or older are 200% more likely to have a heart attack or stroke in their lifetime, compared to those who get enough sleep. So, if you want to live longer (and better), sleep more!