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23May

The big idea: have we been getting sleep all wrong?

Eight hours a day is a myth. Embracing our individual sleeping patterns could be the key to a better night’s rest

‘Sleep: those little slices of death, how I loathe them”; “sleep is a criminal waste of time and a heritage from our cave days.” Quotes like these, somewhat dubiously attributed to Edgar Allan Poe and Thomas Edison, nevertheless reflect our society’s difficult relationship with sleep. Attitudes are changing, but there remains a lingering disdain and suspicion. We know we need it, but resent the fact that we have to do it, and are sometimes misled about how to get it.

What we can be sure of is that sleep is critical for good health. It helps us form memories and solve problems, allows tissue growth and repair, promotes metabolic health and removes toxins from the brain, including amyloid beta which is linked to Alzheimer’s disease. Insufficient and disrupted sleep is now known to result in altered emotional responses such as irritability, anxiety, loss of empathy, impulsivity and a reduced sense of humour. Cognitive performance also takes a hit, leading to a loss of attention, concentration, communication, decision making, creativity, and the ability to multitask. Finally, poor sleep affects physiological health, leading to an increased risk of stroke, heart attack, infection, cancer, obesity, type 2 diabetes and mental illness. Hopefully this encyclopedic list will convince you that insufficient sleep is so much more than the inconvenience of feeling tired at the wrong time. It should also prompt the question: so what is “good sleep”?

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