Lack of sleep is bad for your brain and the economy

At one time it was thought the only effect of regular insufficient sleep was feeling a bit tired during the day. But, during the last decade, numerous studies have shown that regularly falling below seven to eight hours’ solid sleep can have a profound effect on our health.

Dr Asim Hasan, Care UK’s primary care regional medical director for London and South West England, looks at what happens when we are asleep and how being sleep-deprived affects us.

He said: “We do it every day, but give very little thought to sleep until it becomes an issue. Sleep plays a vital role in maintaining brain health and cognitive performance as well as consolidating memories. In 2013, research carried out at the University of Rochester revealed that sleep may be the body’s form of housekeeping, clearing away by-products of neural activity that accumulate during wakefulness.

“The brain’s unique method of waste removal, known as the glymphatic system, is active during sleep. It clears away the toxins responsible for Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological disorders. Researchers found that, during sleep, the brain’s cells reduce in size, allowing waste to be removed more effectively.

“There are also other benefits to sleep. Rest allows our muscles, bones and organs to repair themselves and down-time helps to keep our immune system healthy. So what are the implications of too few hours’ sleep?

“According to the not-for-profit group The Sleep Council, around one-third of us are regularly getting just five to six hours sleep a night. Now while at first glance this may not seem to be troubling, its implications for the individual can be enormous.

“Studies have linked lack of sleep to obesity in adults and children, as people use sweet, high carb food to boost energy levels. This in turn can lead to diabetes and impaired glucose tolerance. Studies have also linked sleep problems to cardiovascular disease, hypertension, anxiety symptoms, depression and increased alcohol use as people try to find that elusive restfulness.

“Earlier this year researchers at the University of Michigan also linked sleep deprivation to interference with the rhythm of neuronal firing in a region of the hippocampus responsible for memory formation – which has big consequences for our ability to learn.

“As well as implications for the NHS there are wider implications for society. In the 2016 study, Why Sleep Matters The Economic Costs of Insufficient Sleep, lead investigator Dr Marco Hafner, from the non-profit research organisation RAND, found that the effect of sleep deprivation on productivity and health was losing the UK up to £40 billion each year – nearly two per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. And our sleeplessness pales in comparison to the Americans who, the study suggests, are losing up to $411 billion of GDP and 1.2 million working days due to insufficient sleep.

“The report concludes that, if those who sleep under six hours a night increase their sleep to between six and seven hours a night, £24 billion could be added to the UK economy. So, for the sake of our own health and for its wider implications to our society, what can we do to decrease our levels of tossing and turning and boost our levels of restful sleep?

“In a world where information and gossip never stops, teenagers in particular are prone to FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), a social angst characterised by a desire to stay continually connected with what others are doing. In adults, this has developed as our phones have brought our workplaces into our homes 24/7 and, in a world where many feel less safe in their jobs, anxiety keeps them monitoring their inbox.

“In the next and final part of our series on sleep I’ll give you some top tips on how to get enough refreshing sleep to see you through your hectic day. Sweet dreams.”

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at