Sleep: why should we care?

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“Amazing breakthrough! Scientists have discovered a revolutionary new treatment that makes you live longer! It enhances your memory and makes you more creative; it makes you look more attractive, it keeps you slim and lowers food cravings; it protects you from cancer and dementia; it wards off colds and the flu; it lowers your risk of heart attack and stroke, not to mention diabetes. You will even feel happier, less depressed and less anxious. Are you interested?”

Of course you are! This is a quote from the book ‘Why We Sleep’ by Matthew Walker. As you have probably guessed from the title of this article and the book itself, sleep is indeed the remarkable discovery that Walker is referring to in this satirical advertisement. If this was describing a new drug or medical treatment that had been launched, most of us would be queuing up to get hold of something so powerful and life changing. Yet the majority of us do not realise the immense power we have to better our health and wellbeing just by addressing that seemingly innocuous activity of sleep.

On average, we spend one third of our lives asleep. As far as scientists know, sleep is a commonality amongst every single living animal on the planet, including fish, insects and birds. Sleep has been demonstrated in the most primitive of species including jellyfish, which do not even have a brain, and which arose 700 million years ago. But sleep makes us vulnerable; we cannot perform any of our survival behaviours such as hunting, eating, finding a mate, finding shelter, and we are susceptible to predation. Forest animals risk falling from their perch, birds need to stop flying, aquatic animals have had to evolve advanced mechanisms to prevent drowning: all in order to ensure that they can still obtain enough sleep despite their varied lifestyles and habitats. With everything we understand about natural selection and evolution, why would sleep have persisted and evolved over millions of years to the present day, in every animal species and environment, if it was not a completely and utterly necessary and irreplaceable process? Surely if something is valuable enough for mother nature to have preserved it for all these millennia, it should be important enough for us to strive to protect too.

And sleep is by no means a passive process. We often think of sleep as simply the absence of wakefulness. In fact, the opposite is true, as in certain stages of sleep the level of brain activity is in fact comparable to wakefulness, and the brain is indeed hard at work performing an enormous number of physiological processes that affect every single organ system. Sleep nourishes the brain and body. During sleep neuronal connections are strengthened to enhance memory and learning, hormones are regulated to control stress levels and appetite, blood sugar levels are regulated, muscles and tissues are repaired, immune system strengthening chemicals are released, and toxic compounds are removed from the brain. The risks of sleep deprivation have been proven in thousands of studies, and include increased risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, gastrointestinal disease, certain types of cancer, and even a reduction in life expectancy. Sleep is an absolute necessity to life, and one particular study on rats proved that they could not actually live without it, with all of the sleep deprived rats dying of multi organ failure within 32 days. Sleep clearly is a non-negotiable aspect of survival.

These are just some of the reasons why sleep should be an absolute priority for everyone, and even more so for high stress professions such as veterinary medicine, where long working hours and shift patterns can already have detrimental consequences on our sleep health. Between juggling family life, our career, hobbies, trying to eat well, exercise regularly, see our friends and attempt to make some time for ourselves, we often just feel like we do not even have the time to sleep. But given that good quality sleep could enhance your efficiency, functionality and enjoyment in all of these tasks, and with the daunting list of health risks listed above relating to sleep deprivation, is this really something we can continue to ignore? We do not think so, and it is the VetShift mission to spark conversations about sleep health, and particularly the inherent risk of working night shifts or on call. We aim to be a source of education and training for both the individual and the organisations within the veterinary profession, teaching vets and nurses how to optimise their sleep health, and teaching managers how best to support their shift workers to mitigate these health risks to their staff.

Stay tuned for our future blogs where we will discuss sleep health in more detail, discuss specific issues related to working in the veterinary profession, and tips and tricks to ensure that you can start getting a good night’s (or day’s!) sleep.

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