Rogers, S. Why a Lack of Shut-Eye is Killing Us….

Shane Rodgers
The Australian
May 04, 2015 12:00AM

Australia is in the grip of a creeping epidemic of irritability, accident-proneness and chronic health conditions, as modern lifestyles mess with the primal wiring of our internal body clocks.

Large chunks of the population are forfeiting sleep and confusing their bodies with erratic bedtime patterns as they look for more prod­uctive time in days jammed with long working hours, commuting, family demands and mounting social options.

The problem has become so sev­ere sleep researchers are now calling for sleep education to be taught in schools and for workplaces to openly discourage long work hours and treating “undersleeping” as a badge of honour.

Inventor Thomas Edison, generally attributed as the inventor of the artificial incandescent light bulb that started most of the problems, famously believed humans could live without sleep. He claimed to survive on just four hours a night, but was often found sleeping in strange places. Others, such as Donald Trump and Margaret Thatcher, also claimed to thrive on very limited sleep.

Sleep Health Foundation board member Siobhan Banks says it is pleasing some senior business figures, such as Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington, are now speaking out against the sleep-deprivation cult.

She said it was clear a great number of Australians were averaging just six to seven hours of sleep a night and a large percentage were getting less than six hours: this was having a “mammoth impact” on health, safety and human relationships.

Studies increasingly show that at these low levels, people are more prone to obesity, diabetes and a range of serious health conditions. This was on top of a far greater risk of accidents and the social cost of tired, irritable people trying to function and interact at work and in busy households.

Dr Banks, a senior research fellow at the School of Psychology, Social Work and Social Policy at the University of South Australia, said the trends indicated people did not put enough value on sleep.

“People are tending to just squeeze their sleep time,” she said. “It’s the thing we can just squash. When we’ve got social commitments, family commitments and work, we tend to say that we’ll just stay up another hour to do this other thing. We know we’re going to be tired the next day but we don’t necessarily have that value set on it to know that it could increase the risk of an accident or it could be impairing health and preventing us from losing weight.”

Dr Banks said a large prop­ortion of the population reported regular sleepiness and this impact­ed on workplace productivity, as well as being dangerous.

She said a better understanding and education about the chronic risks of sleep deprivation was needed, including the importance of a regular sleep pattern.


“I think we need to start with kids,” she said. “We need to go into primary school and actually have it as part of the health curriculum: to talk to kids about sleep and how important it is and what it means to your biological rhythms.”

Program leader at the Co-operative Research Centre for Alertness, Safety and Productivity Shantha Rajaratnam said humans were born with an internal biologic­al clock, traditionally tuned around natural light and dark, but artificial lighting and changes in the structure of the day had interfered with those settings.

“Modern lifestyle is shifting the timing on when we want to be ­active,’’ Professor Rajaratnam said. “We are challenging the biological clock as we try to override the natural signal … It’s like living in Melbourne but trying to operate on Perth time or New Zealand time or more like London time for a night-shift worker. That misalignment exposes us to significant health risks. This is because many of our physiological, behavioural and chemical processes are designed to align to the clock’s “circadian rhythm”.

Professor Rajaratnam said disturbances in this rhythm were increasingly being connected to cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, obesity, depression, anxiety and even cancer. Sleep deprivation was also being blamed for a high proportion of accidental deaths.

The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of the US concluded 20 per cent of car crash injuries were due to sleepiness, which Professor Rajaratnam said was “reasonably consistent in most Western countries … that would make driver sleepiness one of the largest identifiable and preventable causes of accidents in all modes of transport, surpassing alcohol and drugs in terms of the scale of the problem.”

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