Sleep and the psychology of Brexit

(Photo by Neven Krcmarek)

(Photo by Neven Krcmarek) - Credit: Archant

Politicians should remember what lack of sleep can do to us.

One of the best things about stopping work for a summer holiday is that you can get to sleep as long as you like. You may be heading to bed later, but chances are there won't be a clanging alarm call to rouse you any earlier than you choose.

This could be good news for the politicians in our midst. They're renowned for working all hours. Margaret Thatcher said she only needed four hours, and Theresa May has spoken of how any senior government role cuts into the shut-eye. When asked what he wanted for Christmas after months of campaigning to be president of the United States, Barack Obama said without hesitation 'eight hour's sleep'. Ironically the man who replaced him, Donald Trump thinks sleep is for wimps. He's long boasted of needing only four hours a night.

Some of his most paranoid Tweets come when the rest of the US is happily slumbering.

What can we make of this? Is eight hours what we all need and any less a health hazard of some kind? According to the newly published book Sleep Better by Prof Graham Law and Dr Shane Pascoe, that's a fallacy. Adults in the UK sleep on average 7 hours and 10 minutes, but 'this is an average and the number of hours of sleep varies hugely between individuals – from 3.5 hours to 11 hours or more. Some 10% of people report having more than 10 hours' sleep per night, and more than one-third say they sleep fewer than 7 hours'.

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According to our genes, lifestyle, levels of activity and general health, we all need different levels of sleep. And those needs differ according to our ages too: teens tend to become sleepy later in the evening than older people, and want to sleep later in the morning, plus their brains benefit from more sleep than adults, usually about an extra hour more. This may be irritating for teachers and parents, but worth knowing if you're invested in their education or emotional health.

Most of us go to sleep around the same time every night and get up seven or eight hours later, hopefully refreshed. But there are also people who are actively trying to sleep less, using variations of the Everyman or Ubrman schedule of polyphasic sleep. This may sound like the answer but the politicians (and tech-meisters, who want to get sleep out of the way) should remember what lack of sleep can do to us.

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According to Delia McCabe, writing on the site, research shows that people who reduced their sleep to 4.5 hours sleep per night for one week reported negative mood states such as anger, sadness and feeling more stressed and mentally exhausted, while resuming normal hours of sleep bounced them straight back to feeling better emotionally.

'Unfortunately, experiencing anxiety and depression can also influence sleep negatively, although researchers do believe that chronic sleep disturbances are often the cause of depression, with studies showing that 15–20% of people diagnosed with insomnia develop depression.'

Using sleep-challenged rats studies found that sleep loss over a period of weeks changes the serotonin neurotransmitter system in the animals' brains, influencing mood, emotion, and appetite. 'When its functioning is hampered, it leads to further sleep problems, making for a nasty vicious cycle. Sleep loss also reduces the volume of the hippocampus, which is the brain's major learning and memory centre, also regulating emotion.'

It may take up your precious time, and it may not always come when you want it, but there's nothing like a good night's sleep.

• Louise Chunn is the CEO of find a therapist platform

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