In our fast-paced, switched-on, 24/7 lifestyle, it’s almost fashionable to say you can get by on just a few hours shut-eye. But what do the experts say?


In the 2002 film Insomnia, an LAPD cop played by Al Pacino inhabits a grainy world of inertia and chronic sleep deprivation. He’s investigating a murder in a small Alaskan town where the sun never sets and a good night’s sleep eludes him like his quarry. By the time the film ends, Pacino is pale, drawn and bleary-eyed.

It was painful to see just how debilitating a lack of sleep can be. It can turn an alert, intelligent person into a floundering zombie without basic motor and cognitive skills. Most of us can identify with it to some degree at some point in our lives.

Whether it’s a late night after a party, a report for work or general stress that’s playing havoc with your sleep patterns, it will affect your emotional and physical health in fundamental ways.

There are around 84 classified sleep disorders, which underlines just how important (and destructive if denied) this basic human function can be. Some researchers say sleep problems could affect up to 45% of the world’s population.

‘Sleep is as crucial a human function to us as breathing, yet we take it for granted,’ says Dr Irshaad Ebrahim, who is based at the Constantia Sleep Centre in Cape Town and is the medical director of the London Sleep Centre.

‘Sleep is health,’ says Dr Helgo Schomer, a Cape Town-based psychologist. ‘It’s essential. It’s the foundation of how you perform in the world.’

Some studies have shown that laboratory rats will die after two to three weeks if they are stopped from getting deep (REM) sleep. If kept awake for long periods of time, your pet dog will die quicker than if you don’t feed it. If you keep a fly awake, it will die in three days.

Or how about this? A study conducted for the AA by Dr Kevin Rosman, chairman of the Sleep Society of South Africa and a global expert in the field of sleep medicine, found that being awake for 24 hours will make you less able to drive than someone who consumes double the legal limit of alcohol. Simply put, sleep helps us recover and recharge.

‘It’s there to heal, rejuvenate and aid the process of information,’ says Schomer. ‘We go through the day with so much information and during the night we get time to sort it, make sense of it and categorise it.’

Rosman says: ‘Sleep controls literally everything in the body – memory, mood, bone growth, immunity, oestrogen function, hormone function, adrenaline…

‘If you stay awake too late and your sleep is disturbed, your sugar levels will be upset because sleep controls our sugar. It’s probably one of the reasons for the global obesity epidemic,’ he says.

Schomer agrees that poor sleep patterns cause weight gain. ‘If you sleep too little, your hormonal make-up changes and your metabolism changes. We crave carbs when we have had too little sleep.We eat more and we store more,’ he says.

[A lack of sleep] can turn an alert, intelligent person into a floundering zombie

A study undertaken by the Surrey Sleep Research Centre showed that adjusting your sleeping schedule by just one hour can positively affect your health in a significant way.

The centre put volunteers through a series of tests. When sleep was cut from seven-and-a-half to six-and-a-half hours a night, researchers discovered that genes linked to body processes such as stress as well as immune and inflammation response became more operative.

So, we agree that sleep is crucial to our well-being, but the amount seems to be a contentious and controversial issue.

It’s de rigueur for Type A overachievers (think clench-jawed investment bankers and driven politicians) to claim they need very little sleep. Society seems to perpetuate the myth that too much sleep is for the unmotivated and under-ambitious.

Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher were famous for working insanely long hours and snatched three to four hours of sleep. Some say this affected their political judgement, but there’s no proof. Churchill used to take afternoon naps in his pyjamas so that doesn’t really count.

In the modern world of business, some strive to get by on little sleep. High-profile executives (think Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer and Indra Nooyi at Pepsi) also allegedly cope on only four hours a night. That is topped by entrepreneur Donald Trump who says he functions on three.

Interestingly sleep requirements are not linked to an organism’s place on the evolution chain. Lions and gerbils sleep about 13 hours a day. Tigers and squirrels nod off for about 15 hours, but elephants usually doze for around three-and-a-half hours.

Experts agree that between six-and-a-half and seven-and-a-half hours are optimal for humans, but a small percentage fall in the sliding scale. Thatcher was apparently among the 1% of the British population who require four hours.

How much sleep a person needs is complex, though, because it depends on the individual and factors including genetic traits.

Rosman says: ‘It depends on what your need is. It’s genetically determined. The average for an adult is around seven-and-a-half hours, but it’s down to the individual. Our needs are just different. It’s the way we’re designed. It’s what we’ve inherited from our parents.’

As we get older our requirements change. When we’re born we need 22 hours. As young adults we need around seven-and-a-half hours, and then when we’re older adults, we need between around six-and-a-half and seven-and-a-half hours.

Rosman says: ‘You can’t get away with less than you need. How much do you need? Enough to be alert the next day. We look at daytime functioning; if you can function effectively during the day, you’re getting enough.’

Meanwhile Ibrahim says the best index to gauge whether you are sleep deprived is that you sleep, but wake up still feeling tired, sleepy and not refreshed. ‘And if you are trying to catch up at weekends, this means you are not getting enough,’ he says.

The 2012 New York Times best-seller authored by Reuters journalist David K Randall, titled Dreamland Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, makes for fascinating reading. ‘You’ll never look at the pillow in the same way again,’ says Randall.

He explores how sleep, ‘its mechanisms, its absence [and] its cultural norms affects everyone from police officers and truck drivers to artists and entrepreneurs, permeating everything from our decision-making to our emotional intelligence’.

‘As I spent more time investigating the science of sleep, I began to understand that these strange hours of the night underpin nearly every moment of our lives,’ he wrote.

We may not be world leaders, but as mere mortals we live in a culture where people are encouraged to think of sleep as a luxury that you can cut back on.

Randall’s most pertinent point relates to this. Modern life, with its 24-hour news cycles, artificial lighting and 24/7 telecoms has thrown us into a kind of ‘circadian schizophrenia’, he says,

‘We come from millions of years of evolution that did not involve iPhones and tablets. We are designed to have a certain amount of rest and people are getting all sorts of illnesses because they’re aren’t getting enough sleep,’ says Rosman.

He is dismissive of the work-’til-you-drop culture of modern life. ‘The fact is, when you look at the truly high functioning people – not the pretenders – they get a normal night’s sleep and lead balanced lives because they delegate, are able to manage their workloads better and can say no.

‘The rest, the ones who are unable to switch off, are making themselves sick and producing poor quality work. These are the people who retire at 60 and drop dead at 61,’ says Rosman.

One high-profile overachiever to go against the prevailing belief that sleep is for sissies is media mogul Arianna Huffington. She famously told a TED women’s conference that her secret to success was getting enough sleep, and encouraged women to ‘sleep their way to the top’.

She learnt her lesson the hard way, suffering from debilitating exhaustion brought about by being overworked and thinking that this was the norm.

‘This started my crusade against sleep deprivation. It may seem trivial, but it is very foundational,’ she said.

By Tracy Melass
Image: Fredrik Broden/reneerhyner.com