It isn’t uncommon for people to suffer from sleep deprivation. But why do people lack sleep, and why is there such a stigma surrounding people who get enough shut-eye every night? A leading sleep scientist revealed the answers to those questions, while cautioning that sleep deprivation could also increase the risk of a number of life-threatening diseases and conditions.
In an extensive interview with the Guardian, University of California, Berkeley professor Matthew Walker, director of the institution’s Center for Human Sleep Science, warned that sleep deprivation is not being taken seriously enough by employers and everyday people alike. He believes that there is a “powerful” link between a lack of sleep and cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and other more serious conditions, and that it’s extremely important that people get the recommended eight hours of sleep or more.
“No aspect of our biology is left unscathed by sleep deprivation,” Walker said.
“It sinks down into every possible nook and cranny. And yet no one is doing anything about it. Things have to change: in the workplace and our communities, our homes and families.”
Walker, who is the author of an upcoming book called Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams, talked about sleep as an “obsession,” a topic he had studied in depth for more than two decades. And when talking about the reasons why people lack sleep in modern times as compared to about 75 years ago, Walker said that industrialization and hectic work schedules are mainly to blame for the fact that close to 50 percent of people get six hours or less of sleep a night.
“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. No one wants to give up time with their family or entertainment, so they give up sleep instead.”
According to Walker, anxiety is another variable that has caused people to sleep less than they used to in previous decades. He believes that today’s society is “lonelier (and) more depressed,” with access to “enemies of sleep” such as alcohol and caffeine easier than it was in the past.
In addition, Walker believes that modern workplace culture is another reason why people lack sleep. He pointed out that there is a stigma surrounding sleep, as people who spend a lot of time in bed are often stereotyped as being lazy. Furthermore, people frequently treat a lack of sleep like a “badge of honor,” and are shy to admit in public that they need the requisite eight hours of sleep or more.
Summing things up, Walker stressed that humans are the only species in the animal kingdom that, for no good reason, deprive themselves of sleep.
As the Guardian further noted, the Liverpool-born Walker practices what he preaches, as he makes sure to get a “non-negotiable” eight hours of sleep every night, while keeping regular hours while awake. He regularly advises people to always go to bed and wake up at the same time, regardless of the circumstances. And that’s mainly because of the myriad health risks associated with getting a minimal amount of sleep, even for just one night. Many of these risks, including the aforementioned heart disease and diabetes, were previously listed in health resources such as WebMD.
Talking about the tools people can mobilize themselves with to counter the risks associated with a lack of sleep, Walker believes that any kind of “all-nighter” must be avoided, may it be related to work or play. He advised people to treat sleep as if it was a form of work where they should maintain set schedules, and as far as schools and offices are concerned, he suggested later start times for students, as well as incentives for employees who get enough sleep. Sleeping pills, on the other hand, are a no-no, as Walker warned of their “deleterious effect on memory.”
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