‘Arrogant’ humans urged to get more sleep

This week scientists have warned that we are all getting less sleep than ever before, which is leading to many serious health problems. But can sleep really be that important?

When the emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, was asked how many hours of sleep people need, he stated flatly: ‘Six for a man, seven for a woman, eight for a fool.’

But this week, leading researchers have warned that the idea that we do not need much sleep is ‘supremely arrogant’, and lack of sleep is having serious implications for our health.

Scientists from Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Manchester and Surrey universities say that not enough sleep increases the risks of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, infections and obesity.

Most of us require seven to nine hours every night, but we now get between one and two hours less than we did 60 years ago. This means we actively ‘live against’ our body clocks.

The body clock is a cluster of around 10,000 nerve cells that are buried deep within the brain’s hypothalamus. Natural sunlight coming in through the eyes allows the cells to regulate the body and make us operate with optimum efficiency. The body clock triggers the production of hormones such as cortisol, which makes us alert, and melatonin, released as it gets dark, which helps us sleep, detoxify and replenish our energy levels.

But these natural patterns are being subverted by the artificial light produced by smartphones, tablets and computers. Too much exposure to them in the evening postpones the release of melatonin and makes it more difficult for us to get up next day.

Many famous figures have apparently thrived on a lack of sleep, such as the former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who reportedly needed just three to four hours of sleep each night. One of her biographers claimed her ability to work into the early hours made her ‘the best informed person in the room.’

Yet this new research suggests that during the night, attention levels are at their lowest and the risk of accidents is a lot higher. Some people even claim that nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl are caused by people operating on too little sleep.

How seriously should we take this new warning?

Wake up call

Some say this research ignores our ability to adapt to changing times – we are no longer cavemen. City dwellers have been living with artificial light for hundreds of years and our work and play have been long extended into the evening. While it may have made sense at one time for humans to wake up when the sun rose and sleep when it set, this is not necessary today.

But others argue that it is time to take sleep seriously. It is undeniable that our lifestyles have changed due to modern technology, which provides us with an excuse to stay awake rather than switch off. Cheap light is as bad for us as fast food. Going against our natural instincts is dangerously unhealthy.

You Decide

  1. How important is sleeping?
  2. Does this story prove that modern inventions and technology are bad for us?

Activities

  1. Draw a big clock on a piece of paper and write your daily habits around it: what time you sleep and wake up, and what times you eat etc. Compare your clocks in groups, and discuss what changes you could make to be more healthy.
  2. Using our expert links for research, design and draw your own cartoon strip showing the effects of sleep deprivation, from the less serious to the more extreme problems.

Some People Say...

“Sleep is a criminal waste of time, inherited from our cave days.’Thomas Edison”

What do you think?

Q & A

Isn’t sleeping just a waste of time?
No. It is an incredibly important part of our biology, and if we don’t give ourselves enough time to rest, the brain doesn’t shut down properly. Although you might not notice a lack of sleep is making you unhealthy and less productive, over the long-term the effects can be very serious. The problem is thought to be most acute among teenagers.
Is it possible to go without sleep?
The current world record for the longest period without sleep is 11 days, set by Randy Gardner in 1965. Four days into the research, he began to suffer hallucinations, paranoia and confusion. Long periods of sleep deprivation have resulted in people denouncing their families and friends and confessing to crimes they did not commit. Stop sleeping altogether and you will die.

Word Watch

Napoleon
(1769–1821). Napoleon crowned himself the Emperor of the French in 1804 and was at war with most of Europe throughout his reign. After his defeat at Waterloo in 1815 the British exiled him to the remote island of St Helena in the southern Atlantic Ocean.
Hypothalamus
A portion of the brain, roughly the size of an almond, which is responsible for hormone production. Hormones control body temperature, hunger, thirst and moods.
Margaret Thatcher
(1925–2013) Thatcher was Britain’s first female prime minister. Her press secretaries, close friends and biographers have all commented on her tireless energy, and she would often keep her officials up until two or three in the morning to work on speeches.
Chernobyl
A 2000 report, ‘The Impact of Sleep Deprivation on Decision Making’, claimed that a lack of sleep among managers of nuclear power stations left them unable to cope with emergencies and disasters. At the time of the 1986 explosion at Chernobyl – the world’s worst nuclear disaster – the engineers involved had been working for more than 13 hours.

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