Sleep - are you getting enough?

21st of March 2017
Sleep - are you getting enough?

We all crave it and at times may complain we are not getting enough of it – sleep, that is. Hartley Milner looks at sleep deprivation and the impact it can have on our health, productivity in the workplace and national economies.

Ever wondered why some people seemingly get away with the briefest of visits to the land of nod without suffering any ill effects?

For this rare breed of night owl, time curled up under the duvet is time wasted which could be more gainfully spent pursuing goals that enrich their own lives as well as perhaps those of others.

Many of history’s ‘greats’ made their mark despite forgoing the normal seven to nine hours essential sleep requirement of us mere mortals – or maybe because of it.

Prolific polymath Leonardo Da Vinci is said to have been able to stay awake and alert for almost 22 hours of every day while working on his artworks and inventions. He slept only 1.5 - 2 hours a day, taking a 15 to 20-minute nap for every four hours that he was awake.

Britain’s wartime prime minister Winston Churchill had five hours of slumber a night on average, but he did at least ensure he had a substantial daily nap on top of that modest allowance. Margaret Thatcher, by contrast, ran the country on just four hours a day, with no pause for a nap!

Across the pond, tweeting tycoon and now US president Donald Trump boasts he needs just three to four hours, and is quoted as saying contemptuously: “How does somebody that’s sleeping 12 and 14 hours a day compete with someone that’s sleeping three or four?”

Napoleon Bonaparte was another who needed very little zizz at night, but as his name might suggest he would take a nap, even while in the saddle of his famous white steed. But if lack of sleep was not his Waterloo, why should it be ours?

In the genes

It’s all in our genes, according to Ying-Hui Fu, a professor of neurology at the University of California in San Francisco. She discovered a gene that she believes provides the answer.

She says: “There are just two things I consider more important than sleep: air and water. We spend more time sleeping than engaging in any other single activity, but we know very little about how day-to-day sleep behaviour is regulated.

“My lab uses human genetics to gain a better understanding on this topic. We’ve found that sleep behaviour is heavily influenced by our genetic makeup. Just like many other traits – height, weight, body shape – sleep behaviour is at least partly inherited.

“In 2009, we discovered a mutation in the DEC2 gene that allows some people to sleep only four to six hours a night and feel completely refreshed. We study such efficient sleepers in the hope of understanding why sleep is so important.”

Freakily, there are people who claim to have not slept a wink in not only days but years. Super insomniac Thai Ngoc, a 64-year-old Vietnamese man, made the headlines when he said that following a bad case of flu he had been awake for an astonishing 43 years! And, he claimed, without suffering any negative effects.

We have all suffered the effects of a night on the town, burning the midnight oil to catch up with work or coping with the nocturnal demands of a new baby – leaving us fatigued, grumpy, indecisive in our decision-making and stalking around in a zombie-like stupor. But prolonged sleep deprivation can have profound long-term consequences for our mental and physical health.

Serious medical conditions

One in three of us suffers sleep loss, increasing our vulnerability to serious medical conditions such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes. It shortens life expectancy and reduces our ability to concentrate, sometimes with fatal consequences – most drivers will have reported feeling drowsy at the wheel.

A cautionary tale of the damage we can bring upon ourselves is the case of New York DJ Peter Tripp. Tripp was once a world record-holder for the longest period without a single moment’s sleep, notching up to a massive 201 hours or just under eight-and-a-half days.

Tripp spent most of his ‘wakeathon’ in a glass booth in Times Square, New York, to raise money for charity. As his stunt went on, he complained of having hallucinations and showed signs of paranoia, at one point claiming that he was not in fact Peter Tripp but an imposter!

After his self-imposed ordeal, Tripp slept for 13 hours straight and seemed to be fully physically restored. However psychologists soon started to notice acute changes in his behaviour. He would become angry and moody for no apparent reason and was involved in scandals that led to him eventually losing his job. Happily married at the time, Tripp went on to have four divorces and people close to him felt that he had never fully recovered.

Cost to economies

There are situations when you need more than the standard eight hours. It is not unusual to want 10-15 hours of rest and sleep a day if you are recovering from illness, pregnant, living with a
chronic illness or have been through extreme physical exertion, such as running a marathon.

But as well the personal toll from sleep loss there is a heavy cost to national economies, according to not-for-profit research organisation RAND Europe.

RAND researchers found sleep loss leads to a higher mortality risk and lower productivity levels among the workforce. A person who sleeps on average less than six hours a night has a 13 per cent higher mortality risk than someone who gets between seven and nine hours, while those who get only six to seven hours a day have a seven per cent higher risk.

Productivity losses at work occur through a combination of absenteeism and ‘presenteeism’, where employees are at work but perform at a sub-optimal level. Here loss of concentration can have fatal consequences – perhaps due to coming over drowsy while operating dangerous machinery or falling asleep at the wheel of a vehicle.

Marco Hafner, main author of the 2016 report, says: “Our study shows that the effects from a lack of sleep are massive. Sleep deprivation not only influences an individual’s health and wellbeing but has a significant impact on a nation’s economy, with lower productivity levels and a higher mortality risk among workers.

“Improving individual sleep habits and duration has huge implications, with our research showing that simple changes can make a big difference. For example, if those who sleep under six hours a night increase their sleep to between six and seven hours a night, this could add €28 billion to the UK economy alone.”

The study, Why Sleep Matters – The Economic Costs of Insufficient Sleep, is the first of its kind to quantify the economic losses due to lack of sleep among workers in five different countries – the UK, US, Canada, Germany and Japan.

In the UK, lack of sleep among workers accounts for more than 200,000 lost working days each year and costs the economy up to €47 billion a year. In the US, the cost is up to €391 billion a year with 1.2 million days lost, in Japan it is €132 billion (600,000 lost working days), Germany €58 billion (200,000 lost days) and Canada €20 billion (80,000 lost days).

In terms of GDP, Japan has the largest loss due to worker sleep deprivation (2.92 per cent), followed by the US (2.28 per cent) and the UK (1.86 per cent). Canada and Germany have the smallest GDP loss (1.35 per cent and 1.56 per cent respectively).

But what can you do if you are in a high-pressure job that consistently makes high demands on your time beyond the 9 to 5? Well, the unequivocal advice from experts in sleep research is sort out your priorities – make sure you get the sleep quota you need or face the consequences to your health.

Dr Fu advises: “I think that right now the best way is still to listen to your body and figure out what is the best sleep schedule and duration for yourself. For example, when you are on holiday and have no social responsibilities and no other external influences, what is your body telling you to do and how do you feel? What makes you feel the best most of the day? Although it sounds primitive, it’s still the most accurate way.

“I was one of the people who hated sleep and tried everything there was to sleep less before I started this research. Now I wish I never messed with my sleep in my younger years. From what I know now, it is not worth it. It will increase your chances of having health problems later on and it definitely will affect your mental vigilance.

“So my tip is to make sure you get good night’s sleep. You can help by getting comfortable sleep accessories, such as pillows, bedding, etc. If your environment is noisy, use earplugs. Basically, do what you need to do to make sure you get good and sound sleep.”


Our Partners

  • ISSA Interclean
  • EFCI
  • EU-nited