The importance of sleep has been getting increasing coverage over the past decade. We’re slowly moving into greater awareness of how important it is and that it’s not so macho to deprive ourselves. But how many of us still prioritise our social and career activities – whose demands seem so important and pressing – over ensuring that we keep ourselves and the people around us safe through having enough sleep? The problem is that we are surrounded by technology which can turn sleep deprivation into not only a health risk (e.g. A study of 10,000 people carried out over two decades by the University of Warwick and University College London found that people who reduced their sleep from seven to five hours a night nearly doubled their risk of death from cardiovascular disease) but also a fatal disaster.
In the US, The National Sleep Foundation carried out research which showed that 23% of Americans have fallen asleep while driving. Eighty-six per cent of the 1,027 people who participated in the research weren’t able to appreciate or properly identify the factors that made them drowsy. In the UK, statistics show that a quarter of all car crashes are caused by tiredness. Even if someone is not actually asleep, tiredness reduces reaction time, vigilance, alertness and concentration, which are all considered critical factors to driving safely. Judgement is also impaired, leading us to misinterpret distances, speed and the need to respond to stimuli. With this in mind, it is certainly worth considering ways to test for tired driving in a similar way as we do for drink driving.
The problem is, despite being dangerously tired, many of us still think we are functioning at a normal level. This misidentification of our own fundamental physiological drivers can lead to risk-taking that nobody would even consider if they were in full possession of their rational, well-rested faculties. Something that we’re lacking when tired and our survival driven brain takes control.
Lack of sleep is dangerous in many other environments too. Sleep deprivation costs the UK economy between £115 and £240 million per year in work- related accidents. Shift workers, doctors and nurses, lorry drivers and airline pilots are among those most often affected. This figure doesn’t even capture the knock-on impact: the patients who are not treated properly because their doctor hasn’t slept for two nights or the passengers at risk on a plane when the pilot is in charge of a long-haul flight having had barely any sleep.
Needless to say, life would have been utterly different for our ancient ancestors. When night came, most of their activities, in terms of hunting, foraging or doing any work around the settlement, would have been curtailed. Their options for socializing or entertainment would also have been extremely limited. Their living conditions were optimized for a long replenishing sleep. They did not have a thousand interesting distractions that would keep them buzzing and over-stimulated like we do. Unfortunately our brains have not evolved to keep pace with such seismic shifts in our lifestyles.
From an evolutionary perspective, sleeping even appears counterintuitive. Sleeping makes any animal, including humans in the modern world, more vulnerable to predators and threats. Hence sleep must confer some other powerful survival mechanisms for it to override the need for vigilance. Research suggests that sleep has a restorative effect, obviously, but how exactly it works has perplexed scientists for decades. Recent research, however, has potentially uncovered more about the potential function of sleep. Professor Maiken Nedergaard, a neurologist at the University of Rochester Medical Centre, has reported that sleep plays a critical function in ensuring metabolic homeostasis in all animals: preventing the build up of dangerous levels of biochemical waste produced through other chemical activities in the brain during our time awake. Nedergaard and her team showed that in live mice there was a 60% increase in the space between cells in the brain when they sleep. This space allowed a much larger amount of cerebrospinal fluid to pass between the cells and wash away the toxins which built up when the mice were awake. Nedergaard and her team believe the same occurs in humans cleansing our brains of harmful waste proteins. It wouldn’t be possible for us to be awake, attending to all the stimulating business of life, at the same time as closing down the brain to clean it. The bottom line is that if we were not able to clean out these toxins we would die.
Unfortunately, the advanced civilization we live in, with all its tempting distractions and technologies, clearly does not understand that there is a bottom line. Less sleep means less efficacy in removing toxins that can harm our mental and physical health.
Even when problems don’t get that far, our sleep-deprived lifestyles mean that we are less likely to fulfil our potential in more ordinary ways: keeping fit, pursuing satisfying personal relationships and fulfilling our work or creative achievement.
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