‘Catastrophic’ lack of sleep in modern society is killing us, warns leading sleep scientist

A “catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic” is causing a host of potentially fatal diseases, a leading expert has said.

In an interview with the Guardian, Professor Matthew Walker, director of the Centre for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, said that sleep deprivation affected “every aspect of our biology” and was widespread in modern society.

And yet the problem was not being taken seriously by politicians and employers, with a desire to get a decent night’s sleep often stigmatised as a sign of laziness, he said.

Electric lights, television and computer screens, longer commutes, the blurring of the line between work and personal time, and a host of other aspects of modern life have contributed to sleep deprivation, which is defined as less than seven hours a night.

But this has been linked to cancer, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity and poor mental health among other health problems. In short, a lack of sleep is killing us.

Professor Walker, who is originally from Liverpool, said: “No aspect of our biology is left unscathed by sleep deprivation. 

“It sinks down into every possible nook and cranny. And yet no one is doing anything about it. Things have to change: in the workplace and our communities, our homes and families. 

“But when did you ever see an NHS poster urging sleep on people? When did a doctor prescribe, not sleeping pills, but sleep itself? It needs to be prioritised, even incentivised. 

“Sleep loss costs the UK economy over £30bn a year in lost revenue, or 2 per cent of GDP. I could double the NHS budget if only they would institute policies to mandate or powerfully encourage sleep.”

He said he insists that he has a “non-negotiable, eight-hour sleep opportunity every night” and keeps “very regular hours”.

“I take my sleep incredibly seriously because I have seen the evidence,” said Professor Walker, whose book Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams is due out next month.

“Once you know that after just one night of only four or five hours’ sleep, your natural killer cells – the ones that attack the cancer cells that appear in your body every day – drop by 70 per cent per cent, or that a lack of sleep is linked to cancer of the bowel, prostate and breast, or even just that the World Health Organisation has classed any form of night-time shift work as a probable carcinogen, how could you do anything…

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