Scientists from some of the world’s leading universities at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Manchester and Surrey have warned that cutting our sleep is leading to serious health problems.
This is based around the impact on our body clock, which drives huge changes in the human body, altering alertness, mood, physical strength and even the risk of a heart attack in a daily rhythm.
Apparently this arises from our evolutionary past when we were naturally active in the day and resting at night. Scientists now warn that modern life and the 24-hour society, mean many people are now living against their body clocks, with damaging consequences for their health and wellbeing.
The study shows that people are getting between one and two hours less sleep a night than 60 years ago. One of the study’s authors from Oxford University said:
“We are the supremely arrogant species; we feel we can abandon four billion years of evolution and ignore the fact that we have evolved under a light-dark cycle. What we do as a species, perhaps uniquely, is override the clock. And long-term acting against the clock can lead to serious health problems.”
The study says this is an issue affecting the whole of society, not just shift workers although this was an acute problem in teenagers. Furthermore, emerging evidence suggests modern technology is now keeping us up later into the night and cutting sleep.
Light is the most powerful synchroniser of our internal biological clocks and energy efficient light bulbs as well as smart-phones, tablets and computers had high levels of light in the blue end of the spectrum, which disrupt the body clock.
The Harvard University author says: “It’s a big concern that we’re being exposed to much more light, sleeping less and, as a consequence may suffer from many chronic diseases.”
Genetic research is now uncovering how living life against the clock is damaging our health. About 10% of human DNA has a 24-hour pattern of activity, which is behind all the behavioural and physiological changes in the body. But studies have shown rhythm can be disrupted by short sleep duration, or shift work.
Professors at The University of Surrey said there was a large impact on how the body functioned:
“These are all fundamental biological pathways that can be underlying links to some of the negative health outcomes that we see, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity and potentially cancer in people who don’t get enough sleep or do shift-work.”
The University of Cambridge author said the body clock influences every biological process in the human body and the health consequences of living against the clock were ‘pretty clear cut’ particularly in breast cancer.
He said: “Try to live more rhythmically, in tune with the environment and not have too much bright light before bedtime because it will affect the clock and sleep.”
The University of Manchester, said the problems caused by living against the body clock are a major problem for society:
“You might not notice any short-term changes in your health following circadian disruption, but over a long period of time, the consequences could be quite severe. Governments need to take this seriously, starting perhaps with reviewing the health consequences of shift work, and society and legislators needs to take this on board.”
Finally, sleep is something we should all try to achieve or accommodate on some level. The irony is that in the end, we will always have to make time for illness, so perhaps we should make time now to work on our sleep.
Source: BBC News 13 May 2014