Professor Matthew Walker, director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, has come forward to warn us all that our lack of sleep, and lack of willingness to sleep more, is slowly killing us. The “catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic,” as he calls it, is so severe that he believes there is a potent need for government intervention.
“No aspect of our biology is left unscathed by sleep deprivation,” said Walker in an interview with The Guardian. “But when did you ever see an NHS poster urging sleep on people? When did a doctor prescribe, not sleeping pills, but sleep itself?”
Science has shown that lack of sleep can impact our risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and poor mental health, among other things. Sleep loss increases the stress in our systems, the cortisol in our blood, and the myriad of side effects that come along with that. And every one of these possible health effects could be fatal. According to Walker, lack of sleep is truly killing us.
In 1948, less than eight percent of the population was surviving on less than seven hours of sleep a night. Now around half of us are — and we’re paying the price.
These medical costs translate, quite literally, to some very real costs to society. “Sleep loss costs the U.K. economy over 30 billion pounds a year in lost revenue, or two percent of GDP,” explains Walker. “I could double the NHS budget if only they would institute policies to mandate or powerfully encourage sleep.”
The reasons we haven’t been sleeping are tenfold. Walker, who investigates sleep and our relationships with it for a living, explains that the reasons seem obvious once you discover them. “First, we electrified the night. Light is a profound degrader of our sleep. Second, there is the issue of work: Not only the porous borders between when you start and finish, but longer commuter times, too.” As a society, we’re more wired and busier than ever.
And we’re proud of it. “We have stigmatized sleep with the label of laziness,” Walker laments. “We want to seem busy, and one way we express that is by proclaiming how little sleep we’re getting. It’s a badge of honor.” He cited examples of people boasting their lack of rest and hiding their adherence to sleep schedules in shame.
“It’s embarrassing to say it in public. They would rather wait 45 minutes for the confessional,” Walker explains. “Humans are the only species that deliberately deprive themselves of sleep for no apparent reason.”
The effect takes a toll on our physical health, as well as our mental health. “No one wants to give up time with their family or entertainment, so they give up sleep instead,” Walker told The Guardian. “And anxiety plays a part. We’re a lonelier, more depressed society. Alcohol and caffeine are more widely available. All these are the enemies of sleep.” They tend to make consistent sleep more difficult, too — a vicious cycle that’s not only onerous and exhausting, but cancerous.
Walker himself adheres to a strict sleep schedule of eight hours of sleep per night. “Once you know that after just one night of only four or five hours’ sleep, your natural killer cells — the ones that attack the cancer cells that appear in your body every day — drop by 70 percent, or that a lack of sleep is linked to cancer of the bowel, prostate, and breast, or even just that the World Health Organization has classed any form of night-time shift work as a probable carcinogen, how could you do anything else?”
Getting enough sleep is easier said than done; here are some natural remedies to hopefully help you to sleep well through your eight hours.