The Magic of Sleep


The attitudes encapsulated in the macho ‘Lunch is for wimps’ attitude of Gordon Gecko are coming rapidly to an end.

In business and in our personal lives there is a clear grasp of the need to be a bit kinder to ourselves and to others.

Probably the most visible aspect of this change in attitudes is in the growing understanding of the need to take care of our own mental health and that of our family, friends, colleagues and employees.

Allied to this is a growing understanding of the importance -to both mental and physical health – of sleep.

For a long time, there was a culture of sleep being regarded, like lunch, as something for wimps.

People prided themselves on being able to get by with very little. Needing eight hours was something to be vaguely embarrassed about. Churchill and Thatcher, both famous for sleeping only a few hours per night, were hailed as role models.

If only we slept less, then obviously we could be more productive.

Advances in neuroscience are putting paid to those attitudes.


Why We Sleep

Popularizing the counterattack is Matthew Walker, director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley.

His research into the dangers of lack of sleep, which you can read in Why We Sleep, make for simply frightening reading.

He concludes that less than seven hours per night is just as bad for our health as excessive smoking or drinking.

We may think we are getting by well on less but in actual fact it is affecting our mental attitude and our physical health.

Lack of sleep contributes to Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity. The conections are outlined below.


Changing times have led to higher levels of sleep deprivation. According to Walker, in 1942 only about 8% of the population had 6 or less hours per night seep. By 2017 it was closer to 50 %

Why? There are several reasons:

We have electric light everywhere.

Work and leisure are not in compartments. The use of the internet and the growth of working from home means there is no longer the clear distinctions between the two.

There is a growth anxiety which leads to sleep loss.

Likewise, the higher levels of alcohol consumption also lead to loss of sleep.

So Why Does It Matter?

Here are some of the facts in the book that I found most alarming

  • After just one night of only about 4 or 5 hours sleep there is a 70% reduction in the number of cancer killing cells in our system. The cancer cells are on the attack daily, so this is a significant reduction in the body’s ability to defend us.
  • After the age of 45 less than 6 hours sleep raises the chance of a heart attack by 200%. This is partly because sleep helps to reduce blood pressure.
  • More than 20 large scale epidemiological studies show that the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life.
  • Sleep improves the immune system. We all know instinctively that when we have a cold or the flu, bed and rest is what we need to recover. Reduced sleep means our resilience is drastically reduced. We are more likely to catch cold when tired and we respond better to the fly vaccine if we are not sleep deprived. Sleep deprivation undermines the system.
  • Getting too little sleep over many years will significantly raise our risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Basically, there is an accumulation of amyloid (a toxin protein) in the brains of those suffering from the disease. It kills adjacent cells. The amyloid deposits are cleared during sleep. Without sufficient sleep, these plaques build up in an Alzheimer’s patient. The loss of deep sleep caused by this assault therefore lessens our ability to remove them from the brain at night.
  • Lack of sleep appears to affect the body’s control of blood sugar. In experiments, the cells of the sleep-deprived became less responsive to insulin. This may lead to a prediabetic state of hyperglycemia.
  • When your sleep becomes short you are more likely to gain weight because inadequate sleep decreases levels of the satiety-signalling hormone, leptin.

Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care, The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath, Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, Chief nourisher in life’s feast.”

  • Finally, we return to mental health. Walker argues, like Macbeth, that sleep is restorative to the mind. Dreaming allows us, he suggests, to drop the emotional weight of events. This helps us to cope with them better.
  • Sleep affects our mood more generally. Brain scans revealed a 60% increase in the reactivity of the amygdala – a key spot for triggering anger and rage – in the sleep-deprived.

There is much more in the book. For instance, it examines the way that ‘owls’ are affected by the predominent work patterns they are probably obliged to follow.

The book is authoritively written and well-researched. So, as a 6 hours per nighter it has given me pause for thought. I have started to take afternoon naps. And these will be the subject for another article.