How losing just a few hours of sleep can take YEARS off your life

As doctors warn one in eight of us is sleep-deprived, our reporter conducts an exhausting experiment to show its terrible toll on our health...

How do you feel this morning? Well-rested? Looking forward to the weekend? Or did you wake, as I did half-way through last week, feeling even more exhausted than when you fell asleep?

The tiredness was just the start of it. I was also achy, cold and bewildered. My skin — normally perfectly healthy — was greasy and gritty. Though I’d had nothing to drink the night before, it felt like I had a thumping hangover.

These things, I half expected. But the mood swings I didn’t see coming. Normally, I am a resolutely chin-up sort of guy. When faced with life’s miseries, I am resilient to the point of shallowness.

Waking nightmare: Those who sleep fewer than five hours each night are three times more likely than normal sleepers to become psychologically distressed, according to an Australian study

Not now. I was suddenly gripped by the fact that my pet cat was at the end of his middle years and one day he wouldn’t be with us at all.

I was overtaken by despair, an intense desolation that quite destabilised my temperament. I felt utterly inconsolable.

It was the first of a series of powerful undertows of depression that swept over me unexpectedly in the days that followed. Everyday upsets could send my morale plummeting: the story of a vandalised bus shelter in my local paper or finding that all the pens on my desk had dried up.

Sometimes it took nothing at all to set me off, just the sudden sense that a yawning dark chasm had opened beneath me, echoing with the question: ‘What’s the point of anything?’

And the worst part of it was, I had actually volunteered for all this. As an experiment, I had agreed to reduce my normal sleeping routine from my regular eight hours per night to five hours.

With the support of close physical monitoring by health experts, I’d see what effects a week’s sudden lack of slumber can have on body and mind. In so doing, I’d join, temporarily, the rapidly growing ranks of sleepless Britain.

Good health — including mental wellbeing — is a fragile, precious gift and last week I discovered how rapidly and profoundly you can upset it. Within just seven days, I began to develop physical and psychological symptoms, including raised stress hormones and even gout.

Furthermore, changes in my body meant I was on the road to heart disease and diabetes.

I’d been turned into a psychological jelly. Oh, and I’d also started eating spoonfuls of jam and peanut butter straight from the jar.

For many thousands of Britons, such sleeplessness is not merely a journalistic test but a grinding fact of life. Our rushed, stressed, work-ridden lifestyles mean that one in eight of us now sleeps for less than six hours a night, according to figures released this month by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

More than a third of us suffer insomnia while another quarter have some other form of sleep problem. The nation’s problem is so bad that the Mental Health Foundation has launched a campaign to raise awareness of insomnia and how it can be prevented or tackled.

In Scotland this week, plans were launched to teach teenagers the importance of getting sufficient rest, as part of their school curriculum.

For some people, most famously Lady Thatcher, such sleeplessness is not a problem. A few hours each night is all they need.

While I knew I wasn’t a Lady T, I could never possibly have imagined that just a few days’ deprivation would leave me so unwell.

The problem is that chronic sleeplessness often creeps steadily into people’s lives — its mounting mental and physical toll accrues by stealth.

Before embarking on the experiment, I underwent a complete physical check-up at a Bupa screening clinic. This included a battery of blood tests to monitor, among other things, my heart rate, blood pressure, hormone levels, kidney and liver function and cholesterol levels. I was given a clean bill of health — there were no signs of any abnormality.

It was time to embark on Operation Wakefulness — leaving it three hours later to go to bed each night than my normal 11pm.

As someone who finds it easy to nod off, I knew that in order to stay up to 2am I’d need help — so I recruited a gang of hard-drinking, hard-swearing Seventies cops, in the shape of a DVD box set of all four series of The Sweeney. It wasn’t only the car chases and rough justice that helped to keep me awake, though.

By watching the films quietly on my laptop (so as not to disturb anyone), I had unwittingly enlisted one of the most powerful modern causes of sleeplessness — the electronic screen.

Typical sleep-wreckers include stress, anxiety, depression, ill health, hormone problems and drug or alcohol abuse, but to that list we must now add hi-tech gadgets

Typical sleep-wreckers include stress, anxiety, depression, ill health, hormone problems and drug or alcohol abuse, but to that list we must now add hi-tech gadgets.

Indeed, in the same week as my experiment, an American study revealed that exposure to artificial light in the form of computer screens before going to bed suppresses the release of melatonin, a sleep-promoting hormone, so increasing alertness.

(Computer screens are often worse than TV because you sit so close to them.)

It didn’t take long to feel the effects. By the second day of my experiment, my long hours of wakefulness were starting to become more deranged and dreamlike.

Extreme tiredness would come and go in cycles through the day. For an hour or so, I would feel like I was somewhere near normal (or at least, what I figured to be normal), then suddenly I would get completely sledgehammered by exhaustion.

For minutes, I would be dreaming with my eyes open, then my head would nod heavily, jerking me back into a wakeful state.

I did manage to work a little, but much of it was on autopilot. Bizarrely, my reaction times improved; so did my guitar playing — my conscious brain was switching off and my instinctive brain was kicking in.

But anything that required close, sustained concentration was impossible. I decided not to drive.

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