Inside Out

Wake up! It’s time to stop treating sleep deprivation as a badge of honour

Sleep helps stave off a host of ailments, keeps our minds sharp and boosts productivity. So why are we resisting it?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 January, 2018, 10:10am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 January, 2018, 12:24am

Imagine you opened the SCMP today, and saw the following advert:

AMAZING BREAKTHROUGH: Scientists have discovered a revolutionary new treatment that makes you live longer, enhances your memory and makes you more creative. It makes you look more attractive, keeps you slim and lowers food cravings. It protects you from cancer and dementia, and wards off colds and flu. It lowers your risk of heart attacks and stroke, not to mention diabetes. You will even feel happier, less depressed and less anxious. Are you interested?

No doubt the first response would be one of scepticism, presuming this was yet another of those cult-fad diets or snake-oil offerings.

But there really does seem to be such a treatment. It is readily available. It is free. And it seems most of us systematically ignore it. It is called sleep.

To Matthew Walker, one of the world’s leading sleep scientists at the University of California Berkeley, this is a disgrace and a travesty. “The decimation of sleep throughout industrialised nations is having a catastrophic impact on our health, our life expectancy, our safety, our productivity and the education of our children,” he says.

In his new book, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, he talks with detailed authority of the “silent sleep loss epidemic” that has engulfed us almost unnoticed over the past century, robbing most industrial nations of at least 2 per cent of GDP in lost productivity every year, and inflicting innumerable other massive harms.

He fulminates at the machismo-infused workplace cultures that ruin health and compromise their own productivity by stigmatising sleep with the label of laziness and forcing staff to work unacceptable hours as a “badge of honour” – ranging from merchant banks to junior doctors forced to work 24-30 hour shifts. He attacks the “contrived yet fortified arrogance in many working cultures focused on the uselessness of sleep … We are overvaluing (people) that undervalue sleep.”

Prof Walker would strongly take issue with our own Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who in a Christmas-time radio interview revealed that in the two weeks running up to her policy address she slept just three to four hours a night, and even now gets no more than five hours. Lam concedes she has no time for exercise, and has to take medication for high blood pressure. To Prof Walker, she is doing neither Hong Kong nor her own life prospects any favours – nor the life prospects of the staff around her who are similarly endangering their health and compromising their productivity by having to work similar hours.

This cult of wakefulness as a badge of virility was not always so. I remember back in 1983 going to interview the late Sir Philip Haddon-Cave, who was then Hong Kong’s chief secretary, in his office on Lower Albert Road. The first thing you saw as you walked in was a long, comfy reclining sofa with music headphones on the headrest. Here was not a man in any way embarrassed by putting his feet up during the working day, putting on the headphones, and “thinking some things out”.

He might have agreed with Prof Walker that sleep starvation is “a slow form of self-euthanasia”, though he would not have had the data. “After being awake for 19 hours, people are as cognitively impaired as those who are legally drunk,” says Prof Walker: “Individuals fail to recognise how their perennial state of sleep deficiency has come to compromise their mental aptitude and physical vitality, including the slow accumulation of ill-health.”

Sleep deprived and under pressure: Carrie Lam discusses coping with life as Hong Kong’s leader

Referencing his own and other sleep-scientists’ meticulous work over the past two decades, Walker relentlessly identifies the harms that sleep deprivation inflicts: impairment of our immune systems, doubling our risk of succumbing to cancer; a major factor behind whether you will develop Alzheimers, obesity and diabetes; enhanced likelihood of heart attacks and strokes; acute reduction of our learning ability, the acuity of our memory and creativity; mental illnesses like schizophrenia; and a disturbing linkage with over 70 per cent of traffic accidents and deaths.

He describes how lack of sleep creates problems with anger and violence control, and is linked with “aggression, bullying and behavioural problems”. What was that I remember about Donald Trump living on just four hours of sleep a night?

And for more gory detail than you would probably like, sleep starvation also massively compromises a man’s testicles, virility and testosterone levels: “The hormonal blunting effect (of lack of sleep) is so large that it effectively ages a man by 10-15 years in terms of testosterone virility.” Sperm counts are on average 29 per cent lower than for men who sleep better.

Apart from the sobering data on the price we pay for sleep deprivation, Prof Walker’s book is a revelation if, like me, you never quite understood the science of sleep, the cause of dreams, and why sleep is a universal need for all known living things – right down to insects.

Carrie Lam needs to sleep more in 2018, for the sake of Hong Kong

I never before knew that a night of eight hours’ sleep is usually filled by five 90-minute sleep cycles, each a mix of deep, almost comatose “non-rapid-eye-movement” (NREM) sleep, and hyperactive “rapid-eye-movement” (REM) sleep when your brain literally paralyses you so that the hyper-activity of the dreams does not harm you or others.

I never realised that both do different things, and are indispensable to our health: NREM sleep that takes the day’s memories (stored in our hippocampus acting like a memory stick) and transfers them to the cortex for long-term storage, and provides a sort of “power cleanse”, repairing damage and clearing debris from a day of wakefulness; and REM sleep that links and reconciles new memories with existing knowledge, “colliding freshly-minted memories with the entire backlog of your life’s biography,” as Prof Walker almost poetically describes it.

Without NREM sleep, memories never get stored and the repair and maintenance does not occur. REM sleep, Walker rather dramatically says, “is what stands between rationality and insanity.” Small wonder then that we – and all other animals – need sleep. I feel a change in lifestyle coming on. Should you do the same?

David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view