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Why sleep is so important for our health

Adam Williams, Headmaster of Lord Wandsworth College, shares his thoughts on why sleep is so important for our health…

The language of sleep is embedded in our culture: Beauty sleep, Slept like a log, hit the hay, sleepover, catnap, forty winks and burning the candle at both ends, to name but a few well used phrases.

I was reminded of Margaret Thatcher who claimed to sleep only four hours a night. The Iron Lady’s (late to bed, early to rise) routine made her the best-informed person in the room she felt and at the time, I’m not sure many would have disagreed. That said, her pattern of sleep caused problems for her successor, John Major as the civil service were used to being on standby throughout the night – a renegotiation of working hours took place early on. It may also have played a part in the onset Alzheimer’s in later life. Churchill also slept for four hours during the war, though was partial to a nap during the afternoon, more often than not in his pyjamas! Now there’s a new meaning to dress down Friday in the office… Trump claims three hours (of course he does) and yet I wonder whether the tide is turning on our sleep-starved leaders. George W Bush would aim to be in bed by 10 pm every night. He was an outlier in this period of time.

Research suggests that 2/3 of adults in developed nations fail to attain the recommended seven to eight hours.

Can you remember, for example, the last time you woke up without an alarm clock, feeling refreshed and without the need for caffeine?

For sleep dispenses a multitude of health-affirming benefits. In fact, scientists are lobbying doctors to prescribe sleep, rather than medication, these days. Sleep: it restores the immune system, prevents infection, enhances our ability to memorise and make logical decisions, enables us to navigate social and psychological challenges (Boris could do with that on his journeys to Brussels methinks), controls weight and recalibrates our emotional brain circuits. So, quite useful then… There is a reason that sleep torture remains so effective in the military… In fact, currently there are no biological functions that do not benefit from a good night’s shuteye.

Shakespeare had it about right. “Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care, the death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath, Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, Chief nourisher in life’s feast.” Gosh, he was a clever bloke… Not to be outdone, the Dalai Lama famously said, “never waste any time you can spend sleeping.”

It’s a wonderful sentiment and aspiration, and it seems our society continues to move in totally the wrong direction. 24 hours opening, shift work patterns, illuminated cities…a complete shocker for our circadian rhythms.

In 1932, Nathan Kleitman and Bruce Richards retreated into the Mammoth caves, Kentucky, remaining in total (can’t see your hand in front of your face) darkness for 32 days, to study and understand our biological clocks. Their research shone a light on circadian rhythms (no pun intended) and 20 years later Jurge Aschoff was able to prove our sleep cycles were not dependant on light or darkness. And yet, our society appears diametrically opposed to maintaining good sleep patterns. Eating late, coffee shops everywhere, screens and I.T. use in the evenings, late night exercise (the gym), ever-growing obesity and evening alcohol consumption.

Even in schools such as LWC, we have our work cut out to manage the eight hours sleep a teenager needs, set against their own circadian rhythms and melatonin release that sends them to bed later.

The NHS recommends:

  • Limited screen time in bedrooms (that includes the TV)
  • Exercise regularly during the day
  • Cut out caffeine (that includes Coke)
  • Easy on the bingeing (i.e. too much food or too little)
  • Having a good routine
  • Sleep-friendly bedrooms (dark, cool, quiet, comfortable)
  • Talk through your problems
  • Avoiding long weekend lie ins

I’m still intrigued by the fact that all species sleep – a risky business back in the day for humans with sabretooth tigers roaming around, but it turns out humans are monophasic sleepers (i.e. all in one go) rather than polyphasic (multiple rest/activity cycles). This monophasism began 40 to 70,000 years ago. It must be evolutionary and yet even though we spend a third of our lives asleep when we can’t eat, drink, defend ourselves or find a mate – fascinating.

I for one, am working hard(er) at sleeping – trying to clear the mindset and the email inbox, to have that difficult conversation early in the day and to increase exercise and family time.

And so to finish – one of my favourite sleep jokes:

I’ve stayed up all night trying to remember if I have insomnia or amnesia…



(Article first published in November 2019)

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