Heart disease, diabetes, obesity and poor brain function have all long been linked to sub-standard sleep, not to mention simply having the potential to leave you having a seriously sub-standard day at work.
Now a study in the medical journal PNAS has argued the activity of genes can actually be altered when someone’s sleep is cut to fewer than six hours a day for a week.
Sleep plays a key role in the amount of energy we burn, while the increased food intake often associated with insufficient sleep is, it transpires, a physiological adaptation to provide the energy needed to sustain additional wakefulness, the research concluded.
The researchers at the University of Surrey analysed the blood of 26 people after they had had plenty of sleep, up to 10 hours each night for a week, and compared the results with samples after a week of fewer than six hours a night.
Chemistry of the body
More than 700 genes were altered by the shift, meaning the actual chemistry of our bodies was changed, with areas such as the immune system and how the body responds to damage and stress affected in particular.
Much of how sleep actually “works” in terms of health remains to be unlocked and, if anything, what this latest research illustrates is just how much we don’t know about sleep, as much as how much we now do.
Certainly, from a work perspective, the links between sleep, diet, lifestyle and productivity have long been recognised. Someone who has had a good night’s sleep will tend to be more energetic, engaged and productive than someone who is burning the candle at both ends.
Engagement and productivity
Yet, at the same time, this doesn’t always appear to hold true for everyone. Politics and business are littered with examples of high fliers who seem to thrive on an amount of sleep that would leave most of the rest of us dropping.
Indeed, just in April, for example, The Guardian newspaper asked a range of top chief executives what time they got up and the consistent theme was not just how early they tended to rise but how often they, in effect, leapt out of bed energised and ready to go.
At one level, clearly, being able to pass this enthusiasm and drive down an organisation could be a key way to improve productivity and engagement.
On the other, as the PNAS study indirectly illustrates, a long-hours culture can also have potentially deeply damaging effects, both physically and mentally.