How sleep can save your life
Many people behave as though sleep is optional. But getting only six hours a night is a form of slow euthanasia, writes Jennifer O’Connell
Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla and SpaceX, hasn’t been having a great few weeks. There was the bizarre – and totally unfounded – tweet calling one of the Thai cave rescuers a “paedo”. His public threat to set up an agency to monitor journalists. Then there were his ill- advised, late- night forays onto Twitter, in which he managed to raise questions about the future trajectory of Tesla and spark an SEC investigation. It all culminated in an interview in which he said he works 120 hours every week, and hasn’t taken a full week off since he had malaria in 2001.
The problem, more than a few observers have suggested, is that Elon Musk is exhausted.
In the conference room at the Tesla headquarters in California, where his board recently met to deal with the fallout from one of his late- night Twitter sessions, his sleeping bag was still lying on the floor. His travails prompted Arianna Huffington – the creator of Huffington Post and founder of Thrive Global – to write him an open letter, suggesting he get more rest. He replied on Twitter: “Ford & Tesla are the only 2 American car companies to avoid bankruptcy. I just got home from the factory. You think this is an option. It is not.”
He’s not alone in behaving as though sleep is optional – at best, a luxury only those without big, important jobs can afford; at worst a self- indulgent waste of time. Apple co- founder Steve Wozniak once bragged how staying awake for four days allowed him to hallucinate the idea of “putting colour into computers”. Donald Trump claims to get only three to four hours a night. Rob Wiesenthal, the chief executive of Blade, an “Uber for helicopters”, said he sleeps for two periods of two hours. “If you’re shut down or disengaged outside the hours of nine to five . . . you’re just not going to be competitive.”
Humblebragging about their chronic sleep deprivation has become a badge of honour for some overachievers. And, in some respects, it’s easy to understand why. Until recently, we didn’t even really understand why we sleep. It was one of the unsolved mysteries of neuroscience. On the face of it, evolution should have made sleep obsolete millennia ago: it renders us useless, passive and vulnerable for one- third of our lives, not engaged in any of the other vital functions that make us human – eating, reproducing, socialising, running billion dollar companies. It’s all too easy to conclude that sleep is for wimps.
And yet, there is a mounting body of evidence to suggest that doing exactly what Wiesenthal derides, and shutting down for stretches of time outside the hours of nine and five, would make us all more, not less, competitive, smarter, healthier, happier, and more likely to stick around for the long haul.
B e y o n d t h e b r a v a d o o f t h e four- hours- a- night brigade, growing numbers of us are, in fact, anxious about sleep. The self- help sections of bookshops are heaving with titles on sleep. There are documentaries about sleep. Podcasts about it. Gravity blankets that promise to aid sleep by decreasing the stress hormone, cortisol. Gel mattress toppers that promise to keep you cool.
The nature of modern life means sleep is being attacked on several fronts: our exposure to electric light and LED light, which puts a brake on our production of melatonin; caffeine; alcohol, which suppresses vital REM sleep, and prevents us laying down memories; the pull of work, and the emergence of always- on technology; lifestyle factors like longer commute times; and the phenomenon of “sleep procrastination” – or staying up much later than you should to binge on Netflix.
As a result, two- thirds of us now don’t get enough sleep – defined by the World Health Organisation as eight hours. Matthew Walker, the author of the global bestselling Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams, and a professor of neuroscience and psychology at UC Berkeley, suggests we all need to give ourselves sufficient “sleep opportunity time” – which he defines as eight or nine hours in bed.
If you get up at 7am and feel you could fall back asleep at 10am, need caffeine to get through the morning, and don’t wake up before your alarm clock, you’re probably sleep deprived, he suggests. “Routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer.”
“Tiredness kills” is the stark message on the signs erected this summer along the M7 motorway. Drowsy driving is the cause of one in five accidents in Ireland, and 4,000 road deaths every year in Europe, according to the Road Safety Authority ( RSA).
The tragic death of a young mother, Olivia Dunne, and the injuries inflicted on her 15- week- old baby daughter, Eabha, in 2014 showed how catastrophic the consequences of tiredness can be.
Driver Anthony Handley, in his 60s, had four hours’ sleep the night before the accident, “which was not unusual for him”. He had no alcohol or drugs in his system, was not distracted at the time of the incident, and was not speeding. And yet, shortly after midday, he apparently lapsed without warning into a “microsleep”. His SUV veered off the road, swerved onto the footpath near Balbriggan, ki l l i ng t he 31- year- old mother, who was out wheeling her buggy. Baby Eabha suffered horrific injuries, but has since made a good recovery.
Handley, who had no memory of the crash, was jailed for two years in 2016, “to send out the clear message to the community that fatigue must be a phenomenon in the minds of all drivers”. That sentence was found to be unduly harsh and was reduced on appeal, and he was released last year.
In his book, Walker writes that even a two- second “microsleep” behind the wheel – defined as a lapse in concentration, during which the eyelids fully or partially close, and your brain becomes blind to the outside world – is enough to cause death. Microsleeps are usually suffered by individuals who are chronically sleep restricted – getting less than seven hours a night – and sufferers are mostly unaware of them.
The risk of a fatal lapse in concentration behind the wheel is just one more immediate effect of sleep deprivation. Less well- known are the hidden costs to our memories, judgment, decision- making, creativity and long- term health. The truth is that, far from a passive state, sleep is es-
There does not seem to be one major organ within the body, or process within the brain, that isn’t optimally enhanced by sleep and detrimentally impaired when we don’t get enough