Can cutting back on sleep kill you?

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I’m a fan of sleep. Such a fan that I protect my own as much as possible, and even delivered a lecture about the benefits of sleep and how to ensure we get enough of it just yesterday. Some of my enthusiasm for sleep comes from it’s ability to restore our energy, and therefore maintain enhance our general levels of energy and alertness. But perhaps what is less well recognised is that adequate sleep has also been linked with reduced risk of chronic health conditions including heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Seeing as our body demands that we spend a fair chunk of the day asleep, let’s not be too surprised when we find that there is genuinely good reason for this.

This week, a study has surfaced which appears to add to the current weight of evidence which shows sleep to be a critical factor in health. I’ve not actually had sight of this study, as it was presented at a British Sleep Society meeting earlier this week, and has yet to be published. Anyhow, here’s what the study entailed and these are its findings.

Researchers conducted a 17-year analysis of more than 10,000 British civil servants.
The sleep pattern of participants was assessed in 1985-88 and 1992-93. These individuals and were then tracked until 2004.

In particular, the researchers involved in this study calculated what happened to the health of the participants if they cut back from 7 hours of sleep a night to just 5 hours. It’s not uncommon for individuals to scale back sleep when work and other commitments become overwhelming.

Those shortening their sleep in this way were found to have a doubling in their risk of death from cardiovascular disease (e.g. heart attack or stroke). And risk of death overall was up 70 per cent.

There is always the possibility of studies of this nature (epidemiological) that so-called ‘confounding’ factors may be responsible for an association found between low sleeps levels and enhanced disease risk. For instance, sedentary individuals may not sleep well, and perhaps it’s the lack of activity that leaves them at increased risk of disease. In this study, confounding factors such as activity, age, sex, marital status, smoking status, body mass index and blood pressure were taken into consideration. This adjustment strengthens the association between lack of sleep and increased risk of death, and suggests that cutting back on sleep might actually cause a hastened demise.

While for a lot of us sleep time can get squeezed when life is busy, I’d make a case of valuing sleep a little more than we generally do. However, even if we are committed to spending a decent amount of time in bed, that won’t ensure of course, that we will still get enough of it: problems with getting to sleep or staying asleep are common. Below, I’ve pasted in a previous article which suggests some simple strategies for better sleep.

Natural cures for insomnia ” 5th May 2002

In a World where time seems to be in ever-shorter supply, many of us can be tempted to skimp on our sleep. Yet, while sleep is often viewed as a dispensable commodity, the reality is that it anything but. It is when we are asleep that the brain and body recoup energies expended during the day, and the physiological downtime sleep creates gives the body the opportunity to get on with essential maintenance including detoxification and repair. The value of sleep has become very evident to me of late. Normally and eight-hour man, my slumber time over the last few weeks has become squeezed at both ends by a frenetic schedule. As a result, I found myself snoozing my way through most of a decent play on Tuesday, and sometimes wake up feeling as if I have hardly slept at all.

My sleep debt situation, though self-imposed, has made me really quite sympathetic to the plight of the millions of Britons who suffer from insomnia. For some poor unfortunates, just the act of dropping off to sleep each night can be a major battle. There is some evidence that individuals who have difficulty getting to sleep tend to have high levels of stress hormones (such as cortisol) in their systems. As a rule, therefore, insomniacs would do well to avoid anything that increases stress hormone secretion in the evening. Strenuous exercise, cracking on with some paperwork after supper, and exposure to the often heart-quickening images of the television news are unlikely to aid sleep. A relaxed meal, an hour buried in a novel or a good soak in the bath are much more likely to help ease our passage into the land of nod. However, we also need to be mindful of going too soon; snoozing in the evening can reduce our chances of falling asleep once we’re in bed.

In practice, I see the stimulant caffeine as a common factor in insomnia. Studies have shown that coffee and tea drinkers are more likely to suffer from sleep disruption. The effects of caffeine can tend to linger in the body, so cutting out caffeine after breakfast (and sometimes complete elimination of it from the diet) can be important if we want to give ourselves the best chance of getting a decent night’s sleep.

The herbal medicine chest is rammed full of sleep aids. A mug-full of chamomile tea after dinner or a few drops of lavender oil in the bath may be all it takes to tip the balance. Another useful natural remedy for insomnia is the herb Valerian (Valeriana officinalis). This is widely used in folk medicine as a sedative and sleep aid, and unlike many of conventional sleeping tablets is not addictive or prone to leaving us feeling quite hung over in the morning. 300 – 500 mg of root extract or 1 tsp of tincture should be taken one hour before bedtime.

For some individuals, it’s not getting to sleep, but staying asleep that’s the problem. In my experience, this is very often related to drops in the level of sugar in the bloodstream in the middle of the night. When blood sugar levels fall, the body tends to secrete the stress hormone adrenaline to stimulate the release of sugar from the liver. Adrenaline’s other major effects are to increase alertness, wakefulness and feelings of anxiety; it’s hardly the best substance to have whooshing around our bloodstream in the middle of the night.

Individuals who wake in the night often find their quality of sleep improves if they eat an evening meal which releases sugar in a slow, sustained way into the bloodstream. Suppers based around a portion of meat, fish, eggs, tofu or beans, accompanied with some vegetables and a modest amount of rice (preferably brown), pasta or potato are ideal for this. Another useful tactic is to have a light snack of some fruit and/or nuts before bedtime. This can help keep blood sugar levels from dropping into the red during the wee hours.

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