Debate of the Week: Is sleep the key to health?
THE NEWS: A revolutionary new book on natural bodily rhythms reveals how the way we sleep affects our weight, our relationships and our decision-making.
Tina woke up at 2am. She checked her phone for messages, then went to the kitchen and ate a large bowl of cereal. Back in bed, she picked up her tablet and started watching her favourite episode of Friends.
According to Professor Russell Foster, these are all the worst things she could do. His book The New Science of the Body Clock, and How It Can Revolutionise Your Sleep and Health explains why.
We all have a body clock, which controls every aspect of our lives in a 24-hour daily, or circadian, rhythm. To be healthy we have to work in harmony with this cycle.
“We need the correct materials in the right place, in the right amount, at the right time of day,” Foster writes.
“Proteins, enzymes, fats, carbohydrates, hormones and other compounds have to be absorbed, broken down, metabolised and produced at a precise time… without precise regulation by an internal clock, our entire system would be in chaos.”
Night is a time for repair and recovery. Medicines such as aspirin work much better if taken before bed.
Increased sleep can counter obesity. People deprived of it tend to eat more because their bodies produce extra ghrelin – the hormone that makes us feel hungry.
But today we live in a 24/7 society which encourages us to disregard our body clocks. It also depends on many people working through the night.
The results are alarming. Sleep loss has been linked to many road accidents, as well as major disasters such as those at Chernobyl and Bhopal.
But according to another book, Generation Sleepless, the most sleep-deprived people of all are teenagers. They need more sleep than adults – nine to ten hours – yet in the US they average just six and a half. Addiction to smartphones is a major factor, since they stimulate the brain instead of allowing it to slow down into sleep mode.
Is sleep the key to health?
Our bodies work to a timetable and need time to recover and regenerate. If we do not get enough sleep, all manner of things start to go wrong. We are also likely to make dangerously bad decisions.
It is just one of several factors. Eating properly, taking exercise and avoiding smoking and too much alcohol are equally important. Many high-functioning people get by on very little sleep.
If it is, nature has got things badly wrong. There is not much point in life if you spend a large proportion of it unconscious. Our human destiny is to achieve things, not just snooze.
Large bowl of cereal- Foster recommends a light evening meal and warns against late-night snacks. Circadian- The term is made up of two Latin words meaning “approximately” and “ a day”. Metabolised-Processed to obtain energy, build tissue and dispose of waste material. Working through the night In the UK, three million people do night shifts. Chernobyl- The disaster, in 1986, involved a meltdown at a nuclear plant in Ukraine. Bhopal- A gas leak from a pesticide plant in the Indian city killed over 2,000 people. Nine to ten hours- A study found that only 30% of secondary school pupils managed this on most nights.