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

The Irish Times Magazine - - SLEEP -

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-

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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

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