Terry Prone: Lack of sleep blamed for radically changing our bodies for the worse

Almost everybody needs more sleep than they’re getting. The downsides of sleep deprivation are only beginning to be understood, writes Terry Prone

Terry Prone: Lack of sleep blamed for radically changing our bodies for the worse

NOW that I haven’t a chance of getting money out of Prince Andrew via his Pitch@palace scheme, I’ve had to do a bit of rethinking. I haven’t made up my mind whether it would be better to go for crowdfunding, to hit Enterprise Ireland with a detailed proposal or reach out to Mattress Mick, but the one thing I am sure of is that I have a business idea which will transform my finances and improve the life of the nation.

It came to me when I was halfway through a recent book about sleep which is all about how we’re all losing our marbles because we’re not getting enough of it or enough of the right kind of sleep. The book, called Why We Sleep, looks at studies including one which established that “slow rocking increased the depth of deep sleep, boosted the quality of slow brainwaves … The findings offer a scientific explanation for the ancient practice of rocking a child back and forth in one’s arms, or in a crib, inducing a deep sleep.”

Obvious, I hear you say. Well, riddle me this, if it’s so obvious. Why don’t we have beds for grown ups that slow-rock us the way we slow-rock babies?

We have beds with memory foam mattresses that register our shape as we lie on them, producing, for no good reason, versions of the body-outlines detectives used to make around the corpses of the recently murdered. We have beds that can have their heads or tails raised, so you can be half-sitting up or have your legs in the air like a happy labrador.

We have beds with enough space underneath to store six sheep. We have waterbeds, although they were a 20th-century idea whose time has mainly passed. We have beds that vibrate, in spite of the fact that nobody in their sane senses would want to lie in a thing that sounds like a bunch of deranged bees. But beds that rock us slowly? None.

When we buy beds, we usually fixate on the relative hardness or softness of the mattress, or on whether the frame is metal or wood, but beyond that, we look at price and how quickly they can deliver and think not at all of technology.

It is amazing that the constant references to smart homes invariably focus on the kitchen, where your phone can check how much cous cous you have left, but never on the bedroom. We have smart security systems and smart freezers but we never expect to need a smart bed. Indeed, we tend to come over all Victorian when we address our bed, arranging pillows and decorative cushions on it as if we were expecting a visit from a member of the royal family. No, not that member of the royal family.

Maybe there’s a hidden safety issue I’m missing. After all, one of the oldest nursery rhymes sounds, today, like a health and safety warning. “Rock-a-bye baby on the tree top, when the wind blows the cradle will rock” ends with the grim “when the bough breaks the cradle will fall, down will come cradle baby and all.”

But a properly tested prototype of a slow rocking bed could iron out any safety threats, and then we’d have an unequalled comfort offering; owners could get through their awful work day buoyed by the prospect of snuggling into a warm bed that night, knowing the bed would break into a physical Brahms lullaby and transport the owner into lengthy, luscious, languorous sleep in an electronic version of the arms of Morpheus.

You could even have a bed version of those chairs that tip arthritic users upright on the floor, although a bed that turfed you onto the floor each morning might be problematic. It would need to give you fair warning.

As soon as I get my moving bed on the market, I would predict that prescriptions for sleeping pills will drop like a stone. But that would be just the start of it. Car crashes would reduce, since countless collisions are currently caused by tiredness. Obesity wouldn’t be the problem it is today.

A strong link between insomnia and obesity indicates that many people who undersleep overeat to keep themselves awake.

But the benefits would go deeper. Even the memories of the people using my new miraculous bed would improve.

Because, according to Matthew Walker, the author of this new book, a professor of neuroscience and psychology and the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, almost everybody needs more sleep than they’re getting, and the downsides of sleep deprivation are only beginning to be understood in their lethal variety. He maintains that lack of sleep radically changes the body for the worse, instancing some of the studies he examined that looked specifically at the impact of sleep deprivation on athletes.

“Obtain anything less than eight hours of sleep a night,” he says, “and especially less than six hours a night, and the following happens: time to physical exhaustion drops by 10 to 30%, and aerobic output is significantly reduced. Similar impairments are observed in limb extension force and vertical jump height, together with decreases in peak and sustained muscle strength. Add to this marked impairments in cardiovascular, metabolic, and respiratory capabilities that hamper an underslept body, including faster rates of lactic acid buildup, reductions in blood oxygen saturation, and converse increases in blood carbon dioxide, due in part to a reduction in the amount of air that the lungs can expire. Even the ability of the body to cool itself during physical exertion through sweating — a critical part of peak performance — is impaired by sleep loss.”

Some of the reasons for the deficit are obvious and frequently mentioned, one of them being the presence in a bedroom of a tablet and a smartphone, each flooding the room with blue light while readying themselves for their next assault on the ears caused by news alerts.

Sensible grown up people who complain about not getting enough sleep talk about this as if it were the result of an endearing frailty on their part. They know they are inflicting on themselves as many as a dozen alerts from different news sites, arriving at marginally different times, and yet they do not leave their phone and tablet in the kitchen.

Other sleep thieves include street noises and day time stressors preventing that wonderful drift into slumber.

That’s where the sleeping pills come in, and the parallel but unprescribed “remedy’ for sleeplessness, the large glass of wine.

Except that neither Ambien, its extended family, nor a tumbler of plonk deliver the right kind of sleep and so, over the long haul, users are being as helpful to their health as if they were hitting themselves about the head each night with a two by four.

Sleep deprivation causes or colludes with all other major health problems, including cancer, and — quite apart from me and Mattress Mick potentially making money out of it — real solutions are urgently needed.

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