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Wake up to sleep loss – it is a modern epidemic that may be killing you

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By Sam Le Quesne

Sam Le Quesne

I REALISED the other day that I’ve come to view myself as a ‘bad sleeper’. I don’t know when I started thinking like that, it’s just something that’s happened over the years, but I do know that I unquestioningly accept it. It’s become an immutable fact of my life. And yet, for some reason, I’ve never tended to view it as a problem. I get by perfectly well on six hours a night – all I need are a couple of shots of coffee and my daily roster of deadlines and responsibilities to whip me through until bedtime.

I’m sure I probably must have paused to wonder here and there if I might be taking a slightly cavalier attitude towards my health but I can’t think when.

Actually, that’s not quite true: I do remember once mentioning it to the doctor. I kind of wondered out loud whether he might have some suitably industrial-strength, consciousness-deleting pills knocking around that he could give me (just for ‘occasional use’). But he didn’t think that was the way to go.

His view of the situation was that a more holistic change was needed. He thought I should try to find a natural way of ‘cultivating a better relationship with sleep’. Had I thought about yoga, for example?

I hadn’t, but I did (briefly) give it a go. And just as he’d promised it would be, the whole experience was blissfully relaxing. So much so, in fact, that I fell asleep right there in the class, and only woke when the chorus of tutting had grown louder than my snoring.

And I’m sure I could have pursued that more doggedly but things just got in the way, as things inevitably do, and pretty soon my ‘stretching and farting’ sessions (as they were affectionately known) had ceased to be a fixture on the calendar.

I do still exercise, though, and I eat a balanced diet and try to keep a healthy relationship with alcohol. And those, I tell myself, are the main things. Not getting enough sleep might not be perfect but it isn’t going to kill me.

Except that… as it turns out, it is.

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According to some research I came across the other day, averaging six hours sleep (or less) a night will take years off your life. And here’s the thing that really surprised me: reckless sleep-deniers like me aren’t even the exception to the rule – in Britain, for example, we comprise nearly half the population. According to neuroscientist Matthew Walker, the whole country (if not the world) is in the grip of a ‘catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic’.

Tens of millions of ordinary, hard-working people are driving themselves into an early grave, ruining their attention spans, capsizing their relationships, knackering the economy – the list of disastrous consequences goes on, and on.

This whole ‘bad sleeper’ situation is actually a lot worse than I’d thought.

And Walker doesn’t just stop at making the kinds of predictions that will keep you awake at night (an irony that isn’t lost on him). He also lists the many reasons why it’s happening – the things, in other words, that we need to stop doing.

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And it will surprise no one, I’m sure, to discover that in pride of place at the top of his list is the dreaded smartphone. The repeat offender of the digital age.

Like most people, I’d heard some of this before – how the blue light or whatever it is tricks our brains into thinking it’s still daytime – but I didn’t know the part about it killing me. That was completely new information, and something of a game-changer.

Suddenly, my blasé attitude towards my mobile phone was brought into mortal focus. And I began to think about some other bits and pieces I’d read in recent weeks. An Ofcom report, for example, entitled ‘A decade of digital dependency’ which tracked ten years of smartphone usage in the UK.

It said that 71 per cent of British adults never turn off their mobile phone, while 78 per cent said they couldn’t live without it. And an alarming 15 per cent admitted that, because of their phone, they felt like they were always at work.

It’s funny because, while I fastidiously ration my kids’ screen time, I rarely apply the same rigour to myself.

Why? Because, unlike them, I don’t actually want to be on my phone most of the time, I have to be, which is entirely different. I’m not playing Fortnite or Snapchatting people, I’m working and replying to emails and stuff.

But the thing is, so what if I am? We’re now in a world where stress levels are rocketing and online networks are pinning us into place. Don’t we owe it to ourselves to tune out, at least for a few hours a day?

And if so, then why not the few hours leading up to bed?

I genuinely think I might give it a go – mainly because, if I don’t, my whole ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead’ philosophy might kick in a little sooner than I’d planned.

Sam Le

By Sam Le
Journalist

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