Lack of sleep in modern society can be catastrophic, warns leading sleep scientist

In this fast-paced and forward racing world, we are so pre-occupied with success and survival that we tend to take our sleep time for granted which is extremely bad for health and can lead to many health complications. According to leading expert, Professor Mathew Walker, we are currently facing a "catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic". 

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In an interview with the Guardian, Walker spoke about his dedicated research on sleep and how it affects us. He is the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California and is a leading sleep expert. There is so much that goes on behind sleep deprived and baggy eyes that we do not know and Walker hopes to answer some of those questions. 

Professor Mathew Walker (Source: YouTube)

In his book titled, Why We Sleep, he talks about the effects of sleep, the relationship between sleep loss and multiple other sleep-related diseases such as Alzheimer's disease, Cancer, diabetes, obesity, poor mental health. Despite many people trying their best to maintain an 8-hour sleep cycle on average, our lives and environment seem to counter that on every level and make it very difficult to keep doing so. 

According to professor Mathew Walker, unless the government and private institutions join hands in implementing and encouraging healthy sleep patterns, we are at the risk of many health problems and issues. "No aspect of our biology is left unscathed by sleep deprivation."

"It sinks down into every possible nook and cranny. And yet no one is doing anything about it. Things have to change: in the workplace and our communities, our homes and families. But when did you ever see an NHS poster urging sleep on people? When did a doctor prescribe, not sleeping pills, but sleep itself? It needs to be prioritized, even incentivized." 

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Professor Mathew Walker tries to explain why exactly we are so sleep deprived of this day and age. In the year 1942, around less than 8% of the population was struggling to survive on six hours of sleep or less whereas in 2017, one out of two people is trying to maintain an average of six hours of sleep. 

There are some reasons to explain why we seem to have a hard time with our sleep patterns; one is the fact that we have totally electrified the night and have made it seem cool to stay up and out for all odd hours. With all the nightlife and excitement it can be tough for some to get the required amount of sleep. 

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 The second problem is our hectic work schedules and distances. Not all of us are fortunate enough to live close by to our workplace and with the crazy schedules and timings, the time we have to ourselves after work reduces. In order to do more things even after work, people tend to cut back on their sleep time. Since no one wants to give up on family time or entertainment time, they just push back their sleep time.

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People have also attached a lot of negative connotations to sleeping such as being lazy or inactive. Most people would like to portray how busy they are instead of how healthily they sleep. Walker shares an incident about the time when he was giving lectures on sleep and he would have people who would not want to disclose the amount of time they sleep for. It is funny how people change their views on sleep from the time they are born to the time they are adults. People encourage babies to sleep and it becomes non-negotiable but when people become adults all those things change. 

The world around sleep science is relatively small but is gradually growing and increasing. Walker spent some time doing research on neuroscience and said, "I was looking at the brainwave patterns of people with different forms of dementia, but I was failing miserably at finding any difference between them. Some were attacking parts of the brain that had to do with controlled sleep, while other types left those sleep centers unaffected." Getting less sleep during adulthood can also be responsible for developing Alzheimer's disease. 

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Walker eventually taught himself how to set up a sleep laboratory and the recordings showed a clear difference between patients. Sleep could be a new and early diagnostic litmus test for different types subtypes of dementia. This led to him being more and more interested in the subject and he has not looked back since. 

"What is this thing called sleep, and what does it do? I was always curious, annoyingly so, but when I started to read about sleep, I would look up and hours would have gone by. No one could answer the simple question: why do we sleep? That seemed to me to be the greatest scientific mystery."

Sleep expert, Mathew Walker (Source: YouTube)

He definitely tries to follow his own advice as much as possible and he is constantly advising people on how they should aim to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day. Sleeping for four to five hours, your natural killer cells which are responsible for attacking cancer cells drop by about 70%. A lack of sleep has been linked to cancer of the bowel, prostate, and breast. 

This evidence that Walker presents and talks about gives one enough and more reason to sleep early and not take their sleep patterns for granted. Without sleep, people have less energy and a higher risk of contracting other diseases. More than 20 large-scale epidemiological studies have revealed that the shorter you sleep, the shorter your life. For example, adults who are above the age of 45 years and sleep less than six hours a night, are more prone to multiple heart complications as compared to those getting around seven to eight hours of sleep. 

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A lack of sleep also takes over body's control of blood sugar and many health issues. For all those who are concerned about their weight, less sleep also leads to weight gain and chemical imbalance. 

Sleep also greatly effects mental health and Walker has spoken about this in detail in his book. He reveals how being in the dream state is linked and connected to creativity. He believes that dreaming is a soothing balm and we sleep to remember and we sleep to forget. 

Insufficient sleep is also associated with relapse and recurrence of many addiction-related disorders. One train of thought in psychiatry is that mental disorders cause sleep disruption. But Walker believes it is a two-way street. Regulated sleep can improve the health of, for instance, those with bipolar disorder.

If all Walker's work was not reason enough to convince you of the importance of regulated sleep, then you are only waiting for a disaster to occur. 

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Ishani Ghose


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