Insomnia is shortening your life

Scott Fitzgerald, the author, once remarked, “The worst thing in the world is try to sleep and not to.” I’m sure many readers share Fitzgerald’s problem. But suppose this common trouble kills you? That’s when it’s worthwhile to find out more about insomnia, and why some people suffer from TAT (Tired all the Time).

Professor Matthew Walker is founder of the University of California Berkeley’s Center for Human Sleep Science. He’s also author of the book, Why We Sleep. Walker says, “The silent sleep loss epidemic is one of the greatest public health challenges we face in the 21st century.

Right now, if you become drowsy while driving, his figures should awaken you. Walker says that one person dies every hour in the U.S. due to fatigue-related mistakes. For instance, this week over 2 million people in the U.S will fall asleep while driving! This translates into 1.2 million accidents caused by drowsiness every year in the U.S. Could driverless cars cause so many accidents?

On first thought one would expect professional drivers to have a better track record. But Walker says truck drivers are more hazardous because 80 percent are overweight and 50 percent clinically obese, increasing the risk of sleep apnea.

The result can be catastrophic. Long distance truck drivers have a 200 to 500 percent greater risk of accident. And when a driver is killed, he or she takes 4.5 other people with them!

Currently, there are more than 20 sleep studies that have been following patients for several decades. For those who suffer from insomnia one single relationship is notable and disturbing, namely, the “shorter your sleep, the shorter your life!”

But being short on sleep is the cause of more than traffic accidents and death. Professor Walker also shows evidence it’s related to heart attack, obesity, diabetes, cancer and dementia.

Walker reports that in the spring when we lose one hour of sleep due to Daylight Savings Time, there’s a 24 percent increase in heart attacks. Then in the fall when we gain one hour, the reverse, a 21 percent decrease in coronary attacks.

He reports that even our body’s waste-removal system ramps up activity during sleep. This helps to remove plaque from coronary arteries, with less chance of heart attack. Sleep also decreases amyloid-beta waste products in the brain decreasing risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Equally alarming is the fact that Walker’s research could not find a single psychiatric condition is which the subject’s sleep was normal!

The Doctor Game

But how could insomnia affect whether or not one develops cancer? Walker claims that following one night of just four hours sleep, our natural killer cells that attack cancer cells decrease by 75 percent. Due to this loss of killer cells researchers have linked numerous types of cancer such as bowel, breast and prostate malignancies to insomnia.

To drive home the importance of sleep, and possible development of cancer, Walker notes that since 2007 The World Health Association has labelled shift work as “a probable human carcinogen.” Moreover, if you are fighting a battle against cancer, sleep deprivation may cause malignancy to grow more quickly and be more aggressive.

What did not surprise me is that insomnia and drug addiction go hand in hand. Unfortunately, the Walker studies show that children who are chronic poor sleepers are at increased risk of alcohol and drug abuse in their adolescent years. Insomnia has also been associated with bullying.

So how can you improve your sleep so you’re not tired all the time? Go to bed and get up at the same time even if it’s been a bad night. Keep the room temperature at about 65 degrees (18 celsius) and wear socks if your feet are cold. One hour before bedtime turn off the TV, dim lights and use blackout curtains. Avoid caffeine after one p.m. and don’t go to bed tipsy. Alcohol is sedation, but it is not sleep.

Still cannot sleep? Then get up and do something quiet and relaxing until you have an urge to sleep.

But what says Walker if his students snooze during his lectures? He says he’s flattered! He knows sleep helps fact-based learning and memory.

– W. Gifford-Jones MD

Online    For comments