The concerns over sleep deprivation are expanding globally, and scientists from Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester and Surrey universities in the United Kingdom are now voicing the same concerns that have been emanating from researchers in the United States. They warn of the increased risks of cancer, cardiovascular problems, diabetes, obesity and infections that have all been repeatedly associated with sleep deprivation and society’s refusal to listen to our bodies’ clocks.
Professor Russell Foster of the University of Oxford may have said it best when he refers to the problem as “arrogance” on the part of humans. In warning against the current trends of choosing social and work obligations over sleep, he says that we are working against our evolutionary past.
“We are the supremely arrogant species,” he says. “We feel we can abandon four billion years of evolution and ignore the fact that we have evolved under a light-dark cycle. What we do as a species, perhaps uniquely, is override the clock. And long-term acting against the clock can lead to serious health problems.”
Professor Foster says that though many believe that the problem is only impacting those who work on the late shift, he has seen it throughout society, including in teenagers, who need sleep even more than adults.
His American colleague, Professor Charles Czeisler of Harvard University concurs, and blames many of the problems on the impact of smart phones, computers, televisions and tablets that are being used late at night. “Light is the most powerful synchronizer of your internal biological clock,” he said. “Light exposure, especially short wavelength bluish light in the evening, will reset our circadian rhythms to a later hour, postponing the release of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin and making it more difficult for us to get up in the morning. It’s a big concern that we’re being exposed to much more light, sleeping less and, as a consequence may suffer from many chronic diseases.”
There is an increasing amount of research being devoted to studying exactly how that damage is occurring, and much of it is pointing to actual changes taking place within our genetic structure. According to Dr. Simon Archer of the University of Surrey, about one in ten of our genetic structure is programmed to have a 24-hour cycle. These structures impact both behavior and our physiology. But they can be interrupted when the body does not get the sleep that it needs.
“These are all fundamental biological pathways that can be underlying links to some of the negative health outcomes that we see,” he said. These include, “cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity and potentially cancer in people who don’t get enough sleep or do shift work.” His and other studies have shown participants can become pre-diabetic after working late shifts for just a few weeks.
There are a number of studies that have shown a definitive link between disrupted sleep cycles and breast cancer, as well as other conditions. The scientists agree that this is an issue that society needs to take seriously. Says Professor Andrew Loudon of the University of Manchester, “Governments need to take this seriously, starting perhaps with reviewing the health consequences of shift work, and society and legislators need to take this on board.”