We don’t sleep enough. Our doctors tell us this, assorted lifestyle gurus tell us this, and our bodies tell us this every time we wake up feeling like our heads have been gently bludgeoned with a fence paling.
Modern life stretches us until we’re worn out like cheap rubber bands that have grown weak and flabby, no longer fit for purpose because they’ve become as horribly overextended as this metaphor.
But instead of heeding the message and retreating to slumberland, with earplugs, eye masks and a soothing recording of Dr Ben Carson’s stump speech, we struggle on.
Resisting healthy sleep has become our daily norm. We are woken not by the sun at the time that suits our biorhythm, but by the remorseless bleeping of gadgets. On the way to work, caffeinated drinks jolt our sluggish brains into action. On the way home, electronic devices interrupt us with supposedly urgent messages, preventing us from shifting our minds away from the workplace.
Sleep is invariably our lowest priority.
And all the while, there’s society’s constant pressure to earn, succeed, compete and provide. Making rent or mortgage repayments, balancing budgets, planning for the future – it’s stressful and exhausting.
Our sleep debts pile up at casino loan shark rates, and if we don’t pay them back, the punishment is no less disturbingly physical. That’s the main lesson from a new study by the US Centre for Disease Control which has found that the detrimental impacts of sleep deprivation go well beyond what’s commonly understood.
I’m somewhat prone to insomnia, so I’ve always assumed I had a fairly good handle on the effects of inadequate sleep: that horrible groggy jet-lagged feeling, only without the excitement of visiting a new timezone. The heavy eyelids, the nodding off, the inability to form coherent sentences that transforms us into less perky versions of Sarah Palin. Dumb mistakes creep in, and everything seems just that little bit harder.
But according to the CDC’s extensive study, there’s more to sleep deprivation than this. Sleeping fewer than seven hours, the CDC says, increases your risk for “obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, stroke, frequent mental distress, and all-cause mortality”. And if that’s not disturbing enough, it also “impairs cognitive performance, which can increase the likelihood of motor vehicle and other transportation accidents, industrial accidents, medical errors, and loss of work productivity that could affect the wider community”.
In other words, it can kill you slowly or quickly. And if you wind up in hospital courtesy of sleep deprivation, you might end up being killed by your doctor’s.
We all know that when we haven’t slept enough the night before, the following day is going to be a painful one. But clearly, that’s not where it ends. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” is all very well, but the CDC is telling us that if we don’t start taking sleep seriously, we will be.
As a lifetime non-smoker who has always been quite smug about it, I was shocked by the claim last year that sleep deprivation was as detrimental to health as smoking. The CDC report doesn’t make this comparison, but clearly those of us who’ve given up or never started smoking because of the health benefits need to realise that there are other, equally important lifestyle decisions.
The sad thing is that the future wasn’t supposed to work this way. Remember the promise of time-saving devices that would open up our leisure time? I’d hoped that our electronic wizardry would make it so we didn’t have to put in more than four or five hours a day, and computers would do the rest.
Instead, of course, we’ve put in increasingly long hours because most people’s work has become less physical, making it possible to do it all day. Cloud computing and portable electronics have also melted away the distinction between work and home.
Not sleeping enough is also a foolish approach to life. I’ve long been convinced that pulling very long hours is counterproductive – you can survive with very little sleep for 48 hours or so, but if it goes on beyond that, you’ll get so much worse at your job that the benefits of pulling extra hours melt away.
It shouldn’t be so hard to sleep more hours, given how naturally sleep comes to most of us, but it is. The artificial light from our ubiquitous screens trick our bodies into thinking it’s time to be up and about, right when they’re supposed to be lulling us off to slumberland. I constantly find myself checking Twitter or Facebook or a messaging app when I’m meant to be dozing off. Every time, I find something that fires up the neurones which are supposed to be slowly powering down, especially in this era when you can’t go online without finding something you’re supposed to be outraged about.
The temptation to put in a few more hours to get ahead is constant, and even when we have a night off, there’s a temptation to stay out a few more hours to blow off some extra steam – although the spread of lockout laws is certainly helping with that!
So we can add sleeping enough hours to eating healthily and exercising regularly, two other things we’re constantly told by doctors but never seem to get around to acting on.
But the CDC research makes it clear that many of us have to change. I constantly tell myself that I need to break out of the cycle of making myself so tired that I don’t feel like exercising, and instead work out so that I’m sufficiently exhausted to sleep properly.
How precisely I make myself do that is currently beyond me, but I suspect it has something to do with willpower. Perhaps if I sleep more, I’ll be able to figure it out?
Sleep deprivation is a form of torture, routinely practiced at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Most of the time, though, we’re doing it to ourselves.