BBC 7th March 2013
By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine
Modern life is too demanding to turn out the lights and we’re more sleep deprived than ever before. How can we get back in the habit of grabbing shut-eye?
Ask someone how they are and their response, more often than not, is “fine but a bit tired”. Not surprising when one in three of us have sleep problems, according to recent research.
The medical profession calls it TATT, short for “tired all the time”. It’s one of the most common complaints that doctors hear. The disappearance of rest from daily life is also one of the themes of a major new exhibition on sleep at the Wellcome Collection in London.
We just aren’t getting enough sleep and it’s slipping down people’s list of priorities. It seems modern life is just too demanding – and exciting – to switch off.
As a result sleep deprivation is becoming a national problem, say experts.
Sleep is so important because it allows the brain to recover from the rigours of the day. Not getting enough has been found to increase the risk of obesity, heart disease and depression. The government is keen to tackle these health issues, efforts doomed to failure unless getting enough sleep is made a priority as well.
“Sleep is as important as diet and exercise when it comes to the nation’s health,” says Doctor Neil Stanley, a sleep expert at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.
“But we place no importance on it in our culture. When you are sleep deprived you are putting yourself in a stress situation. In our culture it is socially acceptable to have had no sleep and go into work, even though your ability to function is severely impaired and you could be dangerous.”
But even if you cut back on the late nights, how to tackle the problem of falling asleep?
Bad sleep ‘dramatically’ alters body
A run of poor sleep can have a dramatic effect on the internal workings of the human body, say UK researchers.
The activity of hundreds of genes was altered when people’s sleep was cut to less than six hours a day for a week.
Writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers said the results helped explain how poor sleep damaged health.
Heart disease, diabetes, obesity and poor brain function have all been linked to substandard sleep. What missing hours in bed actually does to alter health, however, is unknown.
So researchers at the University of Surrey analysed the blood of 26 people after they had had plenty of sleep, up to 10 hours each night for a week, and compared the results with samples after a week of fewer than six hours a night.
More than 700 genes were altered by the shift. Each contains the instructions for building a protein, so those that became more active produced more proteins – changing the chemistry of the body.
Clearly sleep is critical to rebuilding the body and maintaining a functional state, all kinds of damage appear to occur – hinting at what may lead to ill health”
Prof Colin Smith University of Surrey – Meanwhile the natural body clock was disturbed – some genes naturally wax and wane in activity through the day, but this effect was dulled by sleep deprivation.”There was quite a dramatic change in activity in many different kinds of genes.”
Immunity – Areas such as the immune system and how the body responds to damage and stress were affected. Prof Smith added: “Clearly sleep is critical to rebuilding the body and maintaining a functional state, all kinds of damage appear to occur – hinting at what may lead to ill health. “If we can’t actually replenish and replace new cells, then that’s going to lead to degenerative diseases.”
He said many people may be even more sleep deprived in their daily lives than those in the study – suggesting these changes may be common.
Dr Akhilesh Reddy, a specialist in the body clock at the University of Cambridge, said the key findings were the effects on inflammation and the immune system as it was possible to see a link between those effects and health problems such as diabetes.
“My feeling is that sleep is fundamentally important to regenerating all cells.”