As I sit and consider which aspect of the importance of sleep to discuss, a rather peculiar family tree springs to mind. It’s that of Hypnos, the Greek personification of sleep. His mother was Nyx, the deity of Night, and his father was Erebus, the deity of Darkness, to me a simple description of how night and darkness are often the best conditions for sleep. Hypnos had a twin brother, Thanatos, or death personified, an illustration of how sleep and death seemed remarkably similar to the Greeks.
The cultural importance of sleep
Hypnos was married to Pasithea, the youngest of the Graces and the deity of hallucination or relaxation. They were rumoured to have had many children together, but the most common belief is that they had four sons known as the Oneiroi, meaning ‘dreams’ in Greek. Morpheus: The Winged God of Dreams, able to take any human form in dreams, Phobetor: the personification of nightmares, taking the form of huge and scary animals, Phantasus: the god of fake and illusionary dreams, and finally Ikelos: the one creating seemingly true dreams, making them more realistic. Intangible as sleep is, Hypnos had enormous power over mortals and immortals including the father of the Gods, Zeus.
In this simple mythological family, the Greek writers cleverly illustrate their insight into the complexities of sleep, and even though it may not add much to our understanding of sleep disorders, the simple message of night, darkness and relaxation is an obvious one and stands true even today. And like the power that Hypnos had over the gods and mortals, so too does sleep have power over life. Anyone who has ever suffered a disorder of sleep will testify to that!
The importance of recognising and treating sleep disorders is one that is all too often overlooked by patients and GPs.
Sleep and the body
Physical problems caused by those underestimating the importance of sleep include high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes and diabetes. Interestingly, men with sleep apnoea, a respiratory problem that interrupts sleep, can be subject to a lowered testosterone level, due to the abnormally low production of the hormone during the night.
In a society rapidly coming to terms with an obesity crisis of almost pandemic proportions, sleep also plays its part. Lack of sleep seems to be related to an increase in hunger and appetite, and so possibly to obesity. People who sleep less than six hours a day are almost thirty per cent more likely to become obese than those who slept for seven to nine hours. That lack of sleep doesn’t just create a random hunger but a craving for high-fat, high-carbohydrate foods. Ongoing studies are considering whether the importance of sleep should be a standard part of weight loss programmes. I hardly feel those studies are needed; that advice is never going to be wrong!
Sleep and the mind
Chronic lack of sleep can cause a large variety of psychological and physical problems that all adversely impact on life. Many of the world’s most serious disasters have had lack of sleep as a causative factor, including the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, the massive Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the 1986 nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl. Drowsiness slows reaction times when driving as much as being drunk can.
Sleep plays a critical role in thinking and learning. Lack of sleep interferes with these cognitive processes by impairing attention, alertness, concentration, reasoning, and problem solving. During the night, various sleep cycles play a role in consolidating memories in the mind. If you don’t get enough sleep, you won’t be able to remember what you learned and experienced during the day. This is particularly a problem for young adults in education, whose natural circadian rhythms would have them waking later and going to bed later. Alas, society decides to drag them out of bed for 8am or 9am lessons and it is their exam performance that suffers as a result.
The most common sleep disorder, insomnia, has the strongest link to depression. Some studies have shown that people suffering from insomnia were five times as likely to develop depression as those without. In fact, insomnia is often one of the first symptoms of depression. The two feed on each other: sleep loss aggravates the symptoms of depression, and depression can make it more difficult to fall asleep. Treating sleep problems can help depression and its symptoms and vice versa.
Sleep and judgement
Finally, and this one I feel is especially important, lack of sleep can impair your judgement and the way you interpret events. Sleep-deprived people seem to be especially prone to poor judgement when it comes to assessing what their lack of sleep is actually doing to them. In our increasingly fast-paced, cut and thrust world, functioning on less sleep has become a kind of badge of honour. But most sleep specialists I know say if you think you’re doing fine on less sleep, you’re probably wrong, and that false confidence is simply a trick of your sleep-deprived brain. Studies have shown that people who claim to be used to a lack of sleep do generally perform far worse in cognitive and reactionary tests. Think about the implications this may have for drivers, pilots and surgeons.
The is no clearer a message to be had from this, that sleep disorders may well be ‘put up with’ for long periods of time with the realisation that anything is wrong. But I hope this article shows that it is vital that we do investigate and treat these issues as a key way of helping to safeguard our future health.
The importance of sleep in our daily lives is unquestionable but many of us fail to get enough. Do you get enough sleep? Let us know in the comments section.