Health: Sleep perchance to do more

In our rat-race society a good night's rest is regarded as wimpish. But such an attitude can be fatal.
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The Independent Culture
If you're feeling really smug for making your New Year's resolutions to cut out sugar and go to the gym three times a week, stop. Sleep researchers in the United States say that if you really want to improve the quality of your life, your best resolution for 1999 is to get more sleep.

"We are living in a sleep deprived society and unless we redress the balance and take sleep seriously, society will suffer the consequences in lost hours at work and death on the roads," says Professor Jim Maas, author of Miracle Sleep Cure, that promises the key to a long life of peak performance. Maas says that in the past 20 years we have added about 158 hours to our annual working and commuting time - equal to a full month of working hours.

And young mothers with children have added an astonishing 241 hours to their work and commuting schedules since the 1960s. "We now live in a 24-hour society, a rat race where sleep is totally undervalued," says Maas. "With heavy demands of work, household chores, parenting and family responsibilities, plus a need for a life outside work, four out of every 10 of us are cutting back on sleep to gain time for other things which seem more important or interesting."

Maas believes that - not only are we making ourselves sick through lack of sleep - but we are biologically ill prepared to function on minimal sleep, and that our prehistoric genetic blueprint for sleep has not evolved fast enough to keep up with the pace of 20th-century society. "In this brave new world, people who sleep six hours or less are regarded as being tough, competitive and ambitious. But, if you dare to say you need more sleep or, heaven forbid, you're tired, you run the risk of being seen as someone who lacks what it takes to be successful."

And yet all the research shows that people are chronically tired. Even a survey done in this country by Sleep Council researchers found 62 per cent of people are getting fewer hours sleep now than five years ago. "The pace of life is becoming faster and harder, and the stresses and pressures of work are leading to longer working hours and disrupted sleep. If people are deprived of one or two hours of sleep every night over years and years of a lifetime - that takes its toll," says Maas.

But why do we need all this sleep? Surely if Margaret Thatcher could get by on four hours a night anyone can? But, says Maas, research shows that humans are more likely to need an average of 10 hours a night. "In the sleep lab, people who average eight hours a night - who maintain they are fully alert during the day - and who then get an extra hour's sleep at night, find their productivity levels increase by 25 per cent. I'm not saying that everyone needs to get 10 hours a night, but it you go to bed just one hour earlier at night you will notice a significant difference," he says.

Sleep restores, rejuvenates and energises the body and brain. The third of your life that you spend asleep has profound effects on the other two thirds of your life in terms of alertness, energy, mood memory and performance. The brain tires itself out during waking hours and needs sleep to recover. People who - by choice or because of work, illness or force of circumstance - go without sleep for five to ten days become irrational, paranoid, confused and even hallucinatory.

Dr Adrian Williams - consultant physician at the sleep disorders centre at St Thomas's hospital and author of Doctor I Can't Sleep - believes that the Brits may be just as sleep deprived as their American counterparts. "We should be taking sleep deprivation much more seriously and getting people to understand the positive aspects of good quality sleep. People need to be aware that instead of doing things which interfere with sleep - such as smoking, drinking and taking stimulants - they should take time in the evening to wind down and go to bed earlier."

It is not just lack of sleep which causes daytime tiredness either. "Anyone who lives with a snoring partner will suffer from the same sort of sleep deprivation as the person not going to bed early enough," says Dr Williams. "However, you don't need to catch up on your sleep all in one go. There is a natural period of sleepiness in the afternoon when it is extremely easy to fall asleep. By taking a nap then you don't have to have as much sleep at night."

The Americans have long been great proponents of "power napping". Indeed some US companies which have set up "nap rooms" claim to be reaping the rewards with a workforce that is more alert, has faster reaction times, and is better at problem solving, and these firms report increased creativity. Professor Maas recommends a power nap about eight hours after you get up, "Even just closing your eyes for 10 to 15 minutes can make all the difference to your performance for the rest of the day," he says.

So how can we tell if we are getting the right amount of sleep? US sleep researchers use the Multiple Sleep Latency Test (MSLT). The rationale behind the MSLT is that the more sleep starved you are, the faster you fall asleep during the day. To take the test you lie in a darkened room for 20 minutes, or until your brainwaves show you have entered light sleep - which ever is soonest. The test is done four or five times a day and an average score reached. If it takes 10 minutes or longer to fall asleep then there is no need to worry. Anything less indicates moderate sleep deprivation. Research shows that just an extra couple of hours of sleep at night can make you more alert.

According to Maas each of us maintains a personal sleep bank account. We need enough sleep in that account to be able to function properly during the day. "Most people need to deposit at least eight hours of sleep in their account to cancel the sleep debt incurred by 16 hours of continuous alertness," he says.

Maas maintains that by far the majority of us are significantly sleep deprived, yet remain totally ignorant of how much it affects our mood, performance and behaviour.

"We feel alert when we are engaged in vigorous, interesting and challenging tasks. But it only takes a warm room or a dull meeting or lecture to send the truly sleep-deprived person dozing straight off," he says.

Perhaps the most severely affected of all sleep-deprived people are parents with new babies and toddlers. Sometimes their sleep debt seems insurmountable. "A new baby will result in 400 to 750 hours of sleep loss in the first year. Most parents of newborn babies are walking zombies, and it takes a couple of years to make good the sleep debt," says Maas.

Professor Jim Horne, director of Loughborough University's Sleep Lab remains sceptical about the American research. He argues that we can all function fine on between six and eight hours sleep a night. Indeed, he believes that if we sleep too much we get "sleep fat" - just as when we over eat we put on weight. But what he does agree on is napping. "Humans are designed for two sleeps a day - one at night, and a small one in the afternoon. This explains why people in sunnier climes have an afternoon siesta and why the rest of us feel sleepy in the afternoon," he says.

"People who increase their night-time sleep find that this afternoon `dip' disappears." In the meantime Professor Maas is determined to spread the word out that we all need more sleep. "People say there are not enough hours in the day to take care of the kids, do the shopping, clean the house, have leisure time and go to work. I say that's baloney. If you meet your individual sleep requirement you will be more efficient, more effective, more dynamic and in such a better mood that you will take less time to do a lot more."

`Miracle Sleep Cure' by James B Maas, Thorsons, pounds 7.99. `Doctor I Can't Sleep' by Dr Adrian Williams, Amberwood Publishing, pounds 2.99.