The secrets of sleep

10 October 2017

Shakespeare called sleep 'Chief nourisher in life's feast', now medical research shows why not getting enough sleep puts your health at risk.



Do you slide into eight hours of blissful sleep as soon as your head hits the pillow? Or are you a night owl, late to bed, and groggy in the morning from too little sleep too late?

If you’ve recently gone to bed late and short-changed yourself on your sleep quota, you’ll already be uncomfortably aware of the consequences. After a bad – or too brief – night’s sleep you’ll feel groggy and grumpy and won’t be able to function normally for the rest of the day.

How to cope after a night of no sleep

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Lack of sleep can affect you after just one night, says sleep scientist Professor Matthew Walker, the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley.

As he explains, even a brief period of poor sleep can take its toll. ‘One night of insufficient sleep can have immediate effects. For example, a study limited healthy young adults to four hours of sleep for one night. There was an immediate next-day impairment in their immune systems. Specifically, participants suffered a 70% decrease in critical anti-cancer fighting immune cells, called natural killer cells. That is a concerning state of immune deficiency, and it happens after just one short night of sleep.’ 

‘The cause is, in part, related to the agitating influence of the nervous system as it is forced into overdrive by a lack of sleep. Ramping up the body’s level of stress-related nervous activity provokes an unnecessary and sustained inflammation response. When faced with a real threat, a brief spike of nervous system activity will often trigger a similarly transient response from inflammatory activity—one that is useful in anticipation of potential bodily harm.’

‘However, inflammation has a dark side. Left switched on for many hours (or weeks) without a natural return to peaceful quiescence, a non-specific state of chronic inflammation occurs. This can blunt and hinder the immune system, including critical immune factors relevant to cancer.’

'You are four times more likely to catch a cold if you’ve averaged 5 hours of sleep in the past week, relative to 8 hours of sleep.' Professor Matthew Walker

‘Serious health threats such as cancer can take some time to develop and become apparent. However health problems linked to lack of sleep can develop more quickly,’ explains Matthew Walker.

‘There are other consequences of short-term sleep loss. For example, you are four times more likely to catch a cold if you’ve averaged 5 hours of sleep in the past week, relative to 8 hours of sleep. Moreover, if you don’t get sufficient sleep in the week before your flu shot, your weakened immune system will produce less than 50% of the normal antibody response,’ says Professor Walker.

10 healthy reasons to get a better night’s sleep

'Poor sleep is basically killing us.' Dr Mark Winwood

Matthew Walker isn’t alone in his passion for spreading the word about the importance of sleep. 'Poor sleep is basically killing us,' says Dr Mark Winwood, sleep expert at AXA Healthcare. ‘Poor sleep in middle to later age is really bad for us, because evidence suggests now that it can lead to cognitive decline and even dementia.'

‘If I was to say to you, ‘I’ve got something here that could help manage your weight, reduce your risk of Type 2 diabetes, reduce your risk of heart disease, reduce your risk of stroke, make you happier, and make your thoughts clearer, you’d say yes, wouldn’t you?’ Dr Mark Winwood

‘We should make sleep a priority. If I was to say to you, ‘I’ve got something here that could help manage your weight, reduce your risk of Type 2 diabetes, reduce your risk of heart disease, reduce your risk of stroke, make you happier, and make your thoughts clearer, you’d say yes, wouldn’t you?’

Unfortunately sleep is one important element of our daily lives that suffers as we grow older and can be difficult to get back on track. ‘One of the most significant physiological changes with age is that our sleep gets worse,’ explains Matthew Walker.

‘Older adults have a harder time staying asleep, and when they wake up, will find it more difficult to fall back asleep, relative to when they were in their 20s and 30s. Older adults also suffer a loss of a particular type of sleep, called deep non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. The decrease in deep, restorative, sleep begins even in our 30s, and declines from that point forward as age progresses.’

Say goodnight to insomnia

‘There are many reasons why older adults don’t sleep for as long, or sleep as deeply, as they age,’ says Matthew Walker.

'The brain and body ill health associated with sleep decline in ageing is not a trivial matter.’ Professor Matthew Walker

‘Some of this has to do with medications, body pain and toilet trips. But we have also discovered that the parts of the brain that deteriorate with age include those regions critical for the generation of deep sleep.

‘We are now trying to develop brain stimulation methods to restore some degree of healthy deep sleep to older adults, since the brain and body ill health associated with sleep decline in ageing is not a trivial matter,’ says Professor Walker.

Poor sleep costs money

If those people who sleep for under six hours a night increased this to sleeping between six and seven hours a night, it could add £24 billion to the UK economy.

Sleep deprivation doesn’t just have harmful effects on our health, it can hit countries and companies where it hurts – in their coffers. A study, ‘Why sleep Matters – The Economic Costs of Insufficient Sleep,’ provides further information that the effects of lack of sleep are extensive. Sleep deprivation not only influences an individual’s health and wellbeing, it also has a significant impact on a nation’s economy.

If you’re thinking ‘Dream on’, take a look at the figures. The research carried out for the study found that if those people who sleep for under six hours a night increased this to sleeping between six and seven hours a night, it could add £24 billion to the UK economy.

Lack of sleep – or sleep deprivation – among working people in the UK results in a cost to the UK economy as much as £40 billion a year – a staggering amount.

Another study, carried out by Loughborough University’s Clinical Sleep Research Unit (CSRU) and bed manufacturer Sealy, (2016) found that we are sleep deprived around the world. British women seem to be quite badly affected, losing 10 days sleep a year. Men are not quite so badly affected, but still lose five days sleep a year.*

What to do when insomnia strikes

How can you improve your sleep pattern?

If you tend to stay up late, watching TV, playing cards or checking your emails, how can you improve your sleep pattern?

1) Regularity: Go to bed and wake up at the same time of day, no matter what. Even if you’ve had a bad night’s sleep the night before, or it’s the weekend. The most important part is the wake up time. Never deviate from that, says Matthew Walker

2) Temperature: Keep it cool. Your body needs to drop its core temperature by approximately 1.2 degrees Celsius to initiate sleep. This is the reason it’s always easier to fall asleep in a room that’s too cold rather than too hot, says Matthew Walker. Cold is taking your body in the right temperature direction it needs for sleep. About 18.5 Celsius is optimal for your bedroom. Cooler than you think. (But it's fine to wear socks if you get cold feet.)

3) Walk it out: Never lie awake in bed for a significant time period (20 minutes maximum); rather, get out of bed and do something quiet and relaxing until the urge to sleep returns. Only then should you go back to bed, says Matthew Walker. 

4) Cut back on caffeine, says Dr Mark Winwood. Any caffeine – which is likely to be coffee – that you drink up to midday, could stop you having the quality of sleep that you need.

5) Don’t go to bed hungry, but don’t go to bed just after a big meal. Eating something light, like half a banana before bed, says Dr Mark Winwood, should mean that you’re less likely to wake up because you’re hungry.

6) Steer clear of alcohol near bedtime, as it affects our ability to go into deep sleep, explains Dr Winwood. The nearer to your bedtime you drink, the more disruptive it is to your sleep cycles.

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