Reluctance to go to bed is making us fat, ill and miserable

Matthew Walker wants us all to take sleep more seriously.   “No aspect of our biology is left unscathed by sleep deprivation,” he says. “And yet no one is doing anything about it. When have you ever seen an NHS poster urging sleep? When did a doctor prescribe not sleeping pills, but sleep itself? Sleep loss costs the UK economy more than £30bn a year in lost revenue, or 2% of GDP. I could double the NHS budget if only they would institute policies to mandate or powerfully encourage sleep.”

Walker, a Liverpool-born sleep scientist, is now the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley.

As the line between work and leisure grows ever more blurred, we are worrying more about our sleep. Indeed, it is Walker’s conviction, as recounted to Rachel Cooke in The Observer newspaper, that we are in the midst of a “catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic”, the consequences of which are far graver than any of us could imagine.

Walker has spent the last four-and-a-half years writing Why We Sleep, a complex but urgent book that examines the effects of this epidemic close up, the idea being that once people know of the powerful links between sleep loss and, among other things, Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, obesity and anxiety, they will try harder to get the recommended eight hours a night.

Why, exactly, are we so sleep-deprived?

In 1942, less than 8% of the British population was trying to survive on six hours or less of sleep a night; in 2017, almost one in two people is. “First, we electrified the night,” Walker says. “Light is a profound degrader of our sleep. Second, there is the issue of work: not only the porous borders between when you start and finish, but longer commuter times, too. No one wants to give up time with their family or entertainment, so they give up sleep instead. And anxiety plays a part. We’re a lonelier, more depressed society. Alcohol and caffeine are more widely available. All of these are the enemies of sleep.”

Walker believes, too, that in the developed world sleep is associated with weakness, even shame. “We have stigmatised sleep with the label of laziness. We want to seem busy, and one way we express that is by proclaiming how little sleep we’re getting.

In case you’re wondering, the number of people who can survive on five hours of sleep or less without any impairment, expressed as a percent of the population and rounded to a whole number, is zero.

Does he take his own advice when it comes to sleep? “Yes. I give myself a non-negotiable eight-hour sleep opportunity every night, and I keep very regular hours: if there is one thing I tell people, it’s to go to bed and to wake up at the same time every day, no matter what. I take my sleep incredibly seriously because I have seen the evidence. Once you know that after just one night of only four or five hours’ sleep, your natural killer cells – the ones that attack the cancer cells that appear in your body every day – drop by 70%, how could you not?”

And if he is struck by the curse of insomnia? He turns on a light and reads for a while.

More than 20 large-scale epidemiological studies all report the same clear finding: the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life.

To take just one example, adults aged 45 years or older who sleep less than six hours a night are 200% more likely to have a heart attack or stroke in their lifetime, as compared with those sleeping seven or eight hours a night. A lack of sleep also appears to hijack the body’s effective control of blood sugar, the cells of the sleep-deprived appearing, in experiments, to become less responsive to insulin, thus causing a prediabetic state of hyperglycaemia. When your sleep becomes short, moreover, you are susceptible to weight gain. Among the reasons for this are the fact that inadequate sleep decreases levels of the satiety-signalling hormone, leptin, and increases levels of the hunger-signalling hormone, ghrelin. “I’m not going to say that the obesity crisis is caused by the sleep-loss epidemic alone,” says Walker. “It’s not. But processed food and sedentary lifestyles do not adequately explain its rise. Something is missing. It’s now clear that sleep is that third ingredient.”

Sleep has a powerful effect on the immune system, which is why, when we have flu, our first instinct is to go to bed: our body is trying to sleep itself well. Reduce sleep even for a single night, and your resilience is drastically reduced. As Walker has already said, studies show that short sleep can affect our cancer-fighting immune cells. And getting too little sleep across the adult lifespan will also significantly raise your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.  (In his book, Walker notes “unscientifically” that he has always found it curious that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, both of whom were vocal about how little sleep they needed, both went on to develop the disease.)

And then there is sleep’s effect on mental health. When your mother told you that everything would look better in the morning, she was wise. Walker’s book includes a long section on dreams (which, says Walker, contrary to Dr Freud, cannot be analysed). He suggests that dreaming is a soothing balm. Deep sleep – the part when we begin to dream – is a therapeutic state during which we cast off the emotional charge of our experiences, making them easier to bear. Sleep, or a lack of it, also affects our mood more generally. Brain scans carried out by Walker revealed a 60% amplification in the reactivity of the amygdala – a key spot for triggering anger and rage – in those who were sleep-deprived.

How is it possible to tell if a person is sleep-deprived? Walker thinks we should trust our instincts. Those who would sleep on if their alarm clock was turned off are simply not getting enough. Ditto those who need caffeine in the afternoon to stay awake. “I see it all the time,” he says. “I get on a flight at 10am when people should be at peak alert, and I look around, and half of the plane has immediately fallen asleep.”

So what can the individual do? First, they should avoid pulling “all-nighters”, at their desks or on the dancefloor. Second, they should start thinking about sleep as a kind of work, like going to the gym. “People use alarms to wake up,” Walker says. “So why don’t we have a bedtime alarm to tell us we’ve got half an hour, that we should start cycling down?” We should start thinking of midnight more in terms of its original meaning: as the middle of the night. Sleeping pills, by the way, are to be avoided. Among other things, they can have a deleterious effect on memory.

Here Walker talks with academics at Berkeley about sleep and the brain.

A longer version of this article by Rachel Cooke first appeared in The Observer

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2017. This is a shorter version of a report in the THE WEEK, 4 October 2017

Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker is published by Allen Lane at £20.

The unborn child – personal property disposable at will?

Intelligent people can sometimes surprise us – with their utter folly. Take, for example Eric J. Segall. One can assume that Segall is an intelligent man because he is a law professor at Georgia State University. In mid-May, in an article in the Los Angeles Times, Professor Segall was discussing the probability of a backlash if the United States Supreme Court forces a change on the American people in line with President Obama’s recent “evolution” in the matter of gay rights. That change might well do more damage than good to the future of gay rights and other important causes, he argued.

Professor Segall’s main argument did make some sense. He was saying that changes forced through by the Supreme Court were not such a good idea. Congress, he said, was the better forum to effect change in a democratic society. But it was where he began to cite the precedents for this that his credibility broke down. To compare, confuse, to even suggest that there was even a remote similarity between the abolition of slavery and the campaign of self-indulgent adults with same sex-attraction looking for pseudo rights was astounding.

“By way of comparison,” he said, “at the time the Supreme Court invalidated bans on interracial marriage in 1967, 16 states prohibited whites and blacks from marrying, and there were few organized political movements devoted to defending the racism behind the anti-miscegenation laws.”

Not to see the essential difference between a battle to overcome an inhuman prejudice such as racism and an issue where those opposing change are doing so on the basis of the integrity of the conjugal relationship between a man, as he is biologically, and a woman, as she is biologically, simply beggars belief.

But that was the least of his folly. Roe V. Wade was then dragged into the equation and identified as a “progressive change” in the same way as civil rights battles of the 19th century – presumably including the abolition of slavery – and child labour laws in the early 20th century were progressive.

Arguing that legislation was a better way of effecting change than judicial activism, he holds the view that the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe V. Wade that abortion was a fundamental right protected by the 14th Amendment, set off a very undesirable anti-abortion movement. That decision overturned most state laws on the issue and “less than a decade later, the Moral Majority and the Christian right had become major forces in American politics.” How dreadful.

“I am a strong supporter of abortion rights, and if a woman’s right to choose had been truly secured by Roe, maybe the backlash would have been worth it. But poor women today still have a difficult time obtaining abortions, and burdensome regulations on abortion are proliferating every year.”

Regardless of the pros and cons of legislative as opposed to judicial activism, what seems preposterous in all this is that people like Professor Segall now think there is a parallel between the struggle of the African American against racism, and the system of slavery out of which it grew, and the assertion that yet-to-be-born, but actually living-in-the-womb, human beings are expendable at will. The frightening moral blindness involved here makes them incapable of seeing that the rights claimed by pro-abortionists are parallel with the very rights claimed by slave owners over the lives of the slaves whom they regarded as their personal property.

The slave trade in America accounted for the deaths of millions of African Americans. It is estimated that 11 to 15 million of those who were brought into America as slaves died unnatural and untimely deaths. That does not take account of the millions more who died in subsequent generations after the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade and before the abolition of slavery in North America. This carnage was defended for decades on the basis of property “rights”. The deaths of the yet-to-be-born resulting from the abortion trade, defended by pro-abortionists in the name of the “right” to choose, is much more accurately quantifiable. In the US it is reckoned to be 53 million since the Rove V. Wade decision.

Harriet Beecher Stowe in pre-Civil War America grappled with the conundrum of how her fellow-men, freedom loving citizens of her country, could justify the carnage, the destruction of life and the denial of freedom to other human beings which slavery entailed.

In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she observed,

“Scenes of blood and cruelty are shocking to our ear and heart. What man has nerve to do, man has not nerve to hear. What brother-man and brother-Christian must suffer, cannot be told us, even in our secret chamber, it so harrows the soul! And yet, oh my country! these things are done under the shadow of thy laws!”

She described the horrors of the “property rights” enjoyed by slave owners and the way the law upheld those “rights”. Frederick Douglass, escaped slave and narrative chronicler of the miseries of the system described in factual but equally harrowing detail in his landmark account his early life.

“Let it be remembered that in all southern states,” Stowe wrote in her novel, “it is a principle of jurisprudence that no person of coloured lineage can testify in a suit against a white, and it will be easy to see that such a case may occur, wherever there is a man whose passions outweigh his interests, and a slave who has manhood or principle enough to resist his will. There is, actually, nothing to protect the slave’s life, but the character of the master.”

Can we not translate that observation right into our own time and say that in some countries where abortion on demand is now the de facto law of the land, “There is, actually, nothing to protect the life of a baby in the womb, but the character of the woman bearing it and the men and women who can bring their influence to bear on her?”

Horror stories of the abuses of abortion laws in countries where they have been passed surface with alarming regularity – like stories from Britain where the Daily Telegraph exposed widespread malpractice by abortion “providers” some months ago. Yet another was the house of horrors found in Philadelphia last year. Stories like these were also rife in the era of slavery in the US. Then as now, they were excused as aberrations and not typical of the system – and certainly not justifying the denial of the sacred property “rights” of slave owners. Mrs. Stowe noted it well. We can again translate her words to our own time and circumstances without any difficulty.

 “Facts too shocking to be contemplated occasionally force their way to the public ear, and the comment that one often hears made on them is more shocking than the thing itself. It is said, ‘Very likely such cases may now and then occur, but they are no sample of general practice.’”

Might we hope that someday a modern Harriet Beecher Stowe will emerge and write the novel – or make the movie – which will bring our planet’s inhabitants back to their senses where they will see the enormity of the holocaust in which a large portion of the world which calls itself civilized is currently perpetrating and justify on the basis of a simple “right” to choose.

The Last Straw: booting Boots

This one is a little – perhaps more than a little – personal. My conscience has been troubling me over the past few weeks. I have not had occasion to go to my favourite pharmacist since the Boots chain announced its intentions of providing, from January 12, over-the-counter “emergency contraception” in its Irish stores. My favourite pharmacist is, sadly, a Boots pharmacist. While this is personal it is also a matter which touches directly on the common good of our society and the life and death of human beings. As such I feel I should make my personal response a little public.

It seems to me that, yet again, we have here an instance of corporations taking another step to obliterate all sense of the identity and value of human life in their ruthless pursuit of profits – and then boast of it as “service to the public”.

 I have written as follows to my pharmacist – but do not disclose here either the identity or my pharmacist or the Boots branch where, until January 11, I have been a customer.

 “I have been a customer with Boots for a good number of years now. From time to time I have had misgivings of conscience about this choice of pharmacy in view of some of the products which you provide to the public. Until now I have given the company the benefit of my doubts. However, on reflection, in relation to the latest service which you have announced which you are providing – effectively an abortifacient medication as a so-called ‘emergency contraception’ – I can no longer give Boots the benefit of the doubt. This is contrary to the moral norms which I consider absolute in relation to our responsibility for human life. I don’t think I need to spell this out.

“As a consequence I would request that you set aside for collection, or send to me by post, any current prescriptions which you are holding there so that I can transfer them to one of my local pharmacies.

 “I very much regret having to do this and wish to express my appreciation for your personal courtesy and advice over the past few years. Even though I moved house in September my appreciation for this help was the reason why I had hoped to retain my account with Boots despite some inconvenience. Unfortunately, powers – which I would like to think, are beyond your control – now make it impossible for me to do so any more.

Yours gratefully…”