We all know the line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and we view sleep itself with the same worn familiarity. Like many things in life, sleep is something we take for granted, that is, until we don’t get any. When something becomes unobtainable we are more likely to re-assess how we value it.
As children most of us sleep routine hours without a thought for what else we might be doing with those hours. Sleep is natural and necessary. We all know ratty children who’ve stayed up beyond their bedtimes. Being under the duvet can have its attractions, however, and our relationship to sleep, and our sleep patterns themselves, often change when we are young adults. We want to live life to the full and squeeze every moment from the day, burning the proverbial candle at both ends. At college late night sessions doing last minute submissions, and conversations into the wee small hours, were almost mandatory. And why not? We’re only young once! I have never been good at late nights however, even when I was at college. I knew I needed my sleep, even if it was only five or six hours, and everyone else knew it too!
Starting a family is another time that we tend to pay attention to our relationship with sleep, mostly when we’re not getting any. The disturbed nature of our sleeping patterns can have huge impacts on our lifestyles, and relationships, especially if our tempers fray.
We do need our rest. Science has proved it. Many leaders, famously Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, claimed to not need sleep, but the reality is that they probably obtained their quota at different times, or in different ways to the norm. Cat-napping is a good example of this. I have a friend who can cat-nap anywhere. He can even decide to sleep for ten minutes, and then wake up refreshed. It’s an enviable skill, although when he’s fallen asleep on the train after one too many glasses of afternoon beer, and missed his stop, I do have to smile!
Lack of sleep, even disturbed sleep, has an impact. The list of possible long-term effects from not getting enough sleep is impressive, and includes a potentially reduced lifespan. People who work night shifts are prone to a number of illnesses, and are even more likely to have accidents.
When you begin to look into the subject, you can see why sleep deprivation was used as a torture. We can only go a maximum of 11 days without any sleep. In 1965, Randy Gardner, a 17-year-old high school student, set this apparent world-record for a science fair. Several other normal research subjects have remained awake for eight to 10 days in carefully monitored experiments. 1 None of them suffered lasting ill-effects, but after 2 or 3 days, most of them showed progressive and significant deficits in concentration, motivation, perception and other higher mental processes; after a relatively short time we start to notice deterioration.
I’ve not had a regular sleep pattern in over 18 months now, and my ability to deal with normal day-to-day stresses is definitely diminished. My memory is worse than it was, especially short-term memory, and there is some research which suggests that we actually need sleep to lay down memories. Sometimes I feel like someone’s wiped my hard disc over the last year or so, and that I’ve somehow lost a chunk of life. Living with sleep disturbance certainly robs you of your capacity and energy, and can make normal functions seem far more difficult.
We know very little about our need for sleep, and what causes disruption, and though there is some research, and a rise in the number of so called ‘sleep clinics’, there is very little real information around considering the importance of the subject, and the scale of the problem. It is thought that up to 1 in 3 people in the UK suffer with insomnia. For some it’s a short blip in an otherwise regular sleep pattern, but for others it’s the scourge of years, decades even. In the UK the NHS spend around £50 million a year on prescriptions for sleeping pills, that’s 15.3 million prescriptions and up to 1 in 10 people taking them. 2 In itself, this can lead to long term issues, not least addiction; diverting some of the spend to research and alternative therapies, could prove to be a more effective solution. There are several sleep clinics now in the UK, but being referred to one is a lengthy process, variable across the country, and with no guarantee of a successful outcome.
As we age we may sleep less. We may need to sleep less, or it may be one of the curses of ageing. Again, there’s not a whole heap of data to draw conclusions from. What is certain is that sleep is crucial for our mental and physical well-being, and that a healthy relationship with sleep is every bit as important as a healthy diet. Some research even suggests that our sleep patterns can influence weight gain.
Make a regular date with your bed. It is not time wasted; rather it’s necessary to who we are and how we function. If you think you have an issue with your sleep patterns seek some advice from your GP and/or look at one of the many support groups available on line.
Zzz Sweet dreams Zzz
1 J. Christian Gillin, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, conducts research on sleep, chronobiology and mood disorders
2 Sleeping Pills, Britain’s Hidden Addiction. The Guardian On Line (Guardian.com) Lifestyle Article August 2012.
For Further Help and Information see:
NHS Sleep Problems
British Sleep Society
Mood Juice, Self-Help Guide to Sleep
Photo credit Remigiusz Oprzadek Dreamstime Stock Photos