Britain is one of the most sleep deprived nations in the world and a new BBC documentary seeks to investigate the impact it’s having on us longterm.
‘The Truth About Sleep’, presented by journalist and chronic insomniac Michel Mosley, looks into what sleep is, what happens when we don’t get enough, and the surprising solutions to help us get more.
Here are seven things we learned from the show.
1. We’re a sleep deprived nation.
According to Mosley, over the last 60 years the amount of sleep we’re getting each night has fallen by an average of one to two hours. It’s recommended adults get between seven and eight hours of sleep per night, but few of us regularly do.
Not only are we sleeping less, but when we do hit the hay, the quality of sleep we’re getting isn’t as good as it once was.
“According to a survey by The Mental Health Foundation, up to a third of us say we suffer from insomnia,” Mosley says.
“That means that either you find it difficult to go to sleep or, like me, you wake up in the night.”
2. You can test yourself for sleep deprivation.
You can tell if you’re sleep deprived by going to bed in the middle of the afternoon and finding out how quickly you fall asleep. To do that, you need a watch, a metal spoon and a metal tray.
“The fancy name for this is the sleep onset latency test,” Mosley explains.
To complete the test, simply check the time and place the metal tray by the side of your bed. Lie down while holding the spoon in your hand by the side of the bed (above the tray). As you fall asleep your grip should loosen, meaning the spoon will hit the tray and you’ll wake up.
“If you fall asleep after 15 minutes, you’re okay,” Mosley says. “10 and you’re sleep deprived. But if it’s five minutes or less then you may have severe sleep deprivation.”
3. Genes can impact your ability to sleep.
According to Professor Simon Archer, certain genetic markers can influence how we sleep and whether we’re more inclined to be morning larks or night owls.
Looking at Mosley’s DNA, Professor Archer is able to identify that he’s predisposed to insomnia and needs more sleep than the average person.
The Professor also discovers Mosley is predisposed to being highly sensitive to caffeine, which may be increasing his sleep disruption.
4. Alcohol won’t help you sleep.
Many people believe that a cheeky “night cap” will help you nod off as soon as you hit the pillow. But in reality, having alcohol before bed can cause interrupted sleep and any sleep you do have will be poor in quality.
What’s more, alcohol relaxes throat muscles and can increase snoring, which can then keep your partner awake, too.
5. Sleeping pills cost the economy.
Over 15 million prescriptions for sleeping pills are issued every year and last year, the NHS spent more than £50 million treating insomnia.
Despite their prevalence, Dr Sara Kayat tells Mosley GPs avoid prescribing the pills for longterm use and they will usually only be prescribed when someone is going through a particularly difficult time, such as a bereavement.
“They are addictive and you do build up a tolerance, so you end up needing to use more of them in order to get the same quality of sleep,” she says.
“At some point you’re going to hit a wall when you can’t have any more - and then what do you do?”
6. Sleep deprivation is life-threatening.
The UK has seen a sharp rise in the amount of people suffering from Type 2 diabetes and obesity, which in turn increases a person’s risk of heart disease and cancer.
Dr Helen Scott, from the University of Leeds, has been investigating how this relates to sleep.
“We know that a lack of sleep alters different hormones that are involved in how we perceive appetite and hunger,” she explains.
“So we get more of the hormones that cause us to feel hungry and less of the ones that cause us to feel full.
“There’s some big studies suggestive that people who sleep too little, and indeed those who sleep too much,...it’s associated with the development of obesity and Type 2 diabetes.”
7. There’s some science in old wive’s tales.
When it comes to sleep, it may be worth listening to the advice you get from your grandma.
Scientists have confirmed that having a warm bath before bed may help you fall asleep, as it increases your body temperature. Then, as your body temperature drops when you enter the cold air, it can help you fall to sleep
Other methods to improve sleep in the show include trying mindfulness - by focussing on the breath and recognising the present moment - eating a kiwifruit before bed and taking a prebiotic fibre supplement every day.
‘The Truth About Sleep’ is on BBC One on Thursday 11 May at 9pm.