A rather jolly colleague of mine was recently recounting a moment, not long ago, when his nose started to bleed. As we listened with faint horror, he described how he had been awake for 48 hours with no sleep to meet a number of clustering deadlines. When we responded with alarm, he dismissed the nose bleed and the sleep deprivation as nothing out of the ordinary, because these things “just happen from time to time”.
As someone who aims to get at least 7 hours a night and isn’t averse to a powernap when I need a top-up, my colleague’s story filled me with dread. I couldn’t imagine anything worse.
Sleep is important to me – and doubtless to many of you – because I enjoy it ( I really do love it). But I also know that I need it to perform at my best. Countless studies attest to the fact that even minimal levels of sleep deprivation lead to conditions which are the equivalent of a state of drunkenness. It can lead to obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. It can also inhibit our ability to distinguish between friends and enemies.
Most terrifyingly of all, even “normal” levels of sleep deprivation compound over time.If you sleep six hours a night for twelve days – the average for Brits is 6.8, for Americans just 6.0 – Harvard neurologist Josna Adusumilli says your cognitive and physical performance becomes virtually indistinguishable from that of someone who has been awake for twenty-four hours straight.
It’s enough to keep you up all night.
There’s lots of excellent advice on how to get a full night’s sleep, but my pick of the bunch is here, which includes a list of food which contain high levels of tryptophan which is converted to the “hormone of darkness”, melatonin.
The evidence is overwhelming, so why do so many of us skimp on sleep?
The reason, I think, is cultural as much as it may be intellectual. No-one really believes that a lack of sleep boosts performance, but plenty do believe that an extra hour of work is worth an hour’s less sleep – especially when they’re up against a deadline or caring duties reduce their available working hours. There’s no judgement here; there are times when we all need to make a reluctant trade-off.
What’s troubling is when occasional undersleeping becomes more regular and even habitual. If we were to reframe sleep as nutrition rather than necessity (since we all dislike doing what we think we’re supposed to) that might be a more effective approach.
Sleep deprivation is bad for us, but sleep as nutrition is a wondrous thing: it decreases the risk of obesity and diabetes. It increases our cerebral functions and, when practiced optimally, can improve our motor skills and memory.
In short, if you want to perform at your best, you need to optimise and prioritise sleep. Treat it as it as – a source of valuable and irreplaceable nutrition, as important as five portions of fruit and veg. For those who want a more granular understanding of sleep, including the all-important distinction between Rapid Eye Movement and Short Wave Sleep and how to get enough of each, check out this excellent article.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off for a nap 🙂