How many times have we said, perhaps with some sense of pride: ‘I have been working so hard this week that I’ve hardly slept at all’? Or perhaps, over the years, we have boasted that we did not get home until five in the morning and then went straight back out to work. This attitude is common in our society, but it reveals a dangerous level of ignorance surrounding the importance of sleep and the impact it has on our health and happiness.
According to the author, hardly anyone is aware of the immense risks of sleep deprivation, which is not only unhealthy on an individual level, but also endangers those around us, and society as a whole. If we think about it, we are never taught about the importance of a good night’s sleep at school, and it is extremely rare for a teacher or boss to advise prioritising sleep over finishing an assignment or a job, even if we have to stay up all night to do so.
Despite the fact that sleep is a fundamental physiological need for everyone, and that, on average, we spend a third of our lives asleep, until a few years ago there was very little research on how or why we sleep, or on sleep-related disorders. Although sleep is clearly essential to human beings, the medical and scientific community has largely chosen to ignore the issue, allocating funds and research to other areas. As a result, insomnia and sleep apnoea are simply tolerated and left undiagnosed, so we rarely worry about them, and try to ignore them instead of looking for effective treatments.
Unfortunately, however, ignoring a problem does not make it go away, and data clearly shows that sleep-related issues are still putting our lives at risk much more than we may realise. A large number of road accidents, for example, whether they are put down to human error or alcohol consumption, often ultimately turn out to be connected to sleep problems. We would never allow someone to get behind the wheel if we knew that they were incapable of driving safely, yet we so often turn a blind eye when it comes to sleep deprivation: not enough people know that when our eyelids start to droop, it is not the first sign of tiredness, but that it is actually the very last warning sign that we are about to fall asleep. This general lack of awareness is the main reason why sleep-related accidents are still so common.
Fatigue-related accidents are more than serious enough on their own, yet the problem does not stop there: research shows that most of the disorders that lead to heart attacks, cancer, and shorter life expectancy are also connected to sleep deprivation. At best, poor sleep puts us in a bad mood, causes negative thoughts, and makes us less reactive, less productive, and ultimately unhappy with our lives. Numerous brilliant businesspeople, for instance, have seen their careers completely ruined by an undiagnosed sleep disorder.
This would not be the case if sleep hygiene were taught in schools, so as to educate everyone, as early as childhood, on the importance of a good night’s rest for a long, healthy, and happy life.