Medical Matters: Let’s lay down a marker. Let’s do it tonight. Let’s sleep for eight hours

So in this age of a smorgasbord of smartphones and digital mobile gadgets linked electronically to the multitude of freely available wearable sensors, we have never been more aware of the metrics of our own health and wellness.

We have, for many years, been aware that key drivers of our health and wellbeing are closely related to two simple parameters – our dietary intake and our exercise activity.

To some degree this has been overly simplified to a simple “eat less – move more” equation. Admirably simple and a big part of the story. But we are missing the third and quite possibly the most vital determinant of both our physical health and, more importantly, our mental wellbeing and that is our sleep.

Sleep. Something we all love yet often sadly quite deliberately and consciously decide to neglect.


We all know that if we get high-quality and appropriate quantity of sleep, it enhances our concentration, our attention span, our memory retention and recall. It improves our decision-making capability, our innovative creativity, as well as our social interactions and overall physical and mental health.

Negative emotion
If we get quality sleep, it significantly diminishes our mood swings and our stress levels as well as our levels of negative emotion, in particular frustration, anger and rage. Sleep has been shown to reduce our potentially reckless impulsivity, along with our propensity to drink stimulants such as coffee and alcohol or resort to drugs usage.

Scientific research is now uncovering irrefutable direct negative effects driven by lack of quality sleep and secondary conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and and a raft of other cardiovascular risk factors.

We now know conclusively that the very same neural networks that predispose you to normal sleep are intimately related with overlapping neural networks that provide normal mental health.

Scientists in Scotland have now shown that the genes that are vital for sleep if uncoupled or "smashed" can predispose individuals to significant and debilitating mental health problems including depression, bipolar disorders and schizophrenia. Yet we are all guilty of sleep neglect, mainly through innocent ignorance. Sure we all know we are wrecked the morning after a late night, with or without alcohol, and probably dangerous by mid-

The cycle of sleep neglect continues week in week out simply because we do not value sleep as the priceless commodity it is. We trade it off, thinking we can always make it up tomorrow night or on the weekend.

Forever gone
But the problem is sleep is not something you can trade. Once the opportunity to sleep has been passed up in favour of competing activities, it's gone and gone forever. The negative effects of such sleep deprivation are not short lived but cumulative and long-lasting with potentially devastating short and long-term effects for the individual and those they interact with.

So when we are out for dinner or at the pub and the choice is to have that last glass of wine or pint, we need to think about the trade-off we are making in terms of our sleep. It’s okay to head off home and be in bed by 11pm and clock up the eight hours sleep most of us need each night.

And now even when we get to bed, we find that sleep still has to compete with Netflix or Flipboard or Facebook or the multitude of other digital media temptations that have insinuated themselves within our bedrooms. "Just one more episode of Breaking Bad – 52.46 minutes. I'll be fine in the morning and I will get to bed by 9pm tomorrow night". . . not! Valentine's Day saw all 13 episodes of House of Cards released online in one hit.We can gorge the lot in one weekend. Fantastic. But come Monday, we hit the wall hard. Again.

Let's lay down a marker. Let's do it tonight. Sleep is cool. It's very, very cool. Don't trade it.

Dr Johnny Walker is chairman of Health Founders, The Irish Times partner on our Sleep Challenge.
Sleep disorders and developments: pages 10&11