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London - - Late at night, with her husband sound asleep in bed, Sally Jones would find herself standing in front of her fridge, mindlessly eating chocolate or flapjacks.
After just a few hours’ sleep the previous night, the 58-year-old was exhausted. Having struggled through her hectic working day half-awake, snapping at colleagues, often with nagging headaches and snacking on junk food to give her energy, she would return home - where she would work some more.
Then, eventually, she would crawl into bed around 1am (and often far later) to sleep for just five hours, before getting up and repeating the whole cycle all over again. “I set up my own business providing training to big firms and charities four years ago, and also have a farmhouse and smallholding to run. There was so much to do I couldn’t fit it all in,” says Sally, a former TV presenter who lives near Warwick with her husband John, 73, a civil engineer.
“Forcing myself to sleep less seemed an obvious answer. Anything to keep on top of my workload.”
But it wasn’t long before her busy lifestyle took its toll. Sally, who has two children aged 21 and 23, started to crumble in her bid to fit it all in.
“I looked tired and found my patience and memory suffered,” she says. “I was also impatient with John, who understandably objected to me waking him up when I finally crept to bed. But even these arguments couldn’t stop me. There was just too much to do, and sleep was the one thing I felt I had to sacrifice.”
Sally is just one of the increasing number of women struggling to get by on far too little sleep.
Recent figures show that, despite the NHS recommending we should have a minimum of six to eight hours a night, more and more people are getting by on as little as four hours - a recent report by The Sleep Council puts it at more than one in three.
And experts warn that the have-it-all generation of women trying to squash too much into the working day are particularly affected. The same report found only 22 percent of women sleep well compared with 30 percent of men. Bedroom use of smartphones and laptops, which give out a type of light that can disrupt the production of sleep hormones, has also been blamed.
The dangers of this were thrown into the spotlight this week when an eminent sleep expert warned that modern life and our 24-hour society mean many people seem to be treating sleeplessness as a badge of honour, with potentially devastating consequences.
Russell Foster, professor of circadian neuroscience at the University of Oxford, said people were getting between one and two hours less sleep a night than 60 years ago.
“We are the supremely arrogant species,” he says. “We feel we can abandon four billion years of evolution and ignore the fact we have evolved under a light-dark cycle. What we do as a species, perhaps uniquely, is over-ride the clock. But doing that long-term can lead to serious health problems.”
These include an increased risk of cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, infections, obesity, mental health problems and impaired productivity.
A 2010 study by the University of Warwick even found that getting less than six hours’ sleep a night was linked to a dramatically increased risk of death.
But today’s generation of time-squeezed women still seem hell-bent on fighting their natural bodyclocks to meet their hectic schedules.
The practice even has a trendy name: “sleep-hacking”, the idea being that by improving the quality of your sleep you can get by on just three to five hours a night.
In America, a whole industry has emerged out of sleep-hacking, with bestselling books and sleep coaches.
Followers use a range of techniques to ensure the few hours’ sleep they get are deep and undisturbed - from blackout curtains to having an ice-cold bath before bed (said to speed up the natural drop in body temperature needed to fall asleep swiftly).
Many ambitious women feel it’s the only way they can combine a ceaseless routine of work and family life.
That’s certainly the case for Charlotte Fall, 36, who lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband Edward, 36, and daughters Scarlett, five, and Saffron, three.
“I’m asleep by 11pm, up at 5am, when I turn on my laptop straight-away and work until 5pm,” she says. “Getting up early means I have two hours of complete solitude to work before my daughters get up. This way, I can squeeze an extra day into my week.”
It started when she began her own baby jewellery business two years ago and decided she would have to get by on less sleep.
“Orders were coming in from all over the world. It just went crazy,” says Charlotte. “I started grabbing just a few hours of sleep a night and was soon doing that every day - including weekends - for six months.”
She was dismayed to find that during the short time she did spend in bed, she struggled to get to sleep because she felt over-stimulated.
“I’d work on my laptop right up until going to bed, so when the lights went out I still felt wired. I’d lie there unable to drift off.”
Independent sleep expert Dr Neil Stanley says: “Not only does it mean you’ll be ruminating about work, which means your brain won’t switch off, but phones and laptops emit blue light that suppresses melatonin, the sleep hormone.
“Even when you switch them off, it will take at least another 30 or 40 minutes before your brain starts to feel sleepy. You really need this wind-down time.”
Dr Stanley adds that people who battle long-term against their body clocks may not find it easy to reverse.
“We see this with insomnia - normally a short-term, transient problem, linked to some kind of stress. But if it goes on too long, people forget how to sleep, going from being transient to chronic insomniacs. The same is probably true for all these people tinkering about with their body clocks. You still have the biological drive to sleep during the night, but your brain has forgotten how to do it.”
Six months after starting her business, Charlotte began ensuring she had an hour before bed that was free of phone, tablet or laptop use, and ensured her bedroom was clean, dark and clear of clutter.
“It means as soon as my head hits the pillow, I’m out,” she says. “And those six hours I get are really good and deep. And I have a supportive husband who takes the reins when I’m in the office on the weekends.”
“I have simply learnt the art of early rising. I don’t know why everyone doesn’t lengthen their day this way.”
So, can it really be true that by getting better, deeper sleep, you won’t need as much?
Dr Stanley believes the practice to be deeply flawed and says that when it comes to sleep, it’s quantity as well as quality that counts.
“How much sleep we need is genetically determined, just like our height,” says Dr Stanley. “You can’t get the full benefit in less time; you can’t short-circuit it.”
Sleep is essential because it’s at this time that the brain and body repair themselves. “One study last year found that cutting sleep back to six hours a night for just two weeks was enough to dramatically alter the function of hundreds of individual genes in the body.
“Your judgment and cognitive function will be affected; you’ll be moody and less able to control your emotions, so you’ll just be doing everything less efficiently.”
Dr Stanley says people who “sleep-hack” are taking a serious gamble with their health and well-being.
‘”here’s this culture of answering emails as late at night as possible to show you’re a good employee. But sleep is a biological necessity and it cannot be curtailed.
“You’d die from lack of sleep at about the same time that you’d die from lack of water.”
Some women have already discovered the consequences of gambling with sleep.
Jenny Pabila didn’t just reduce her sleep time - for five years, she regularly went without it altogether, often working all night and through the following day, only getting to bed that evening.
“It started because my second child wouldn’t sleep through the night and so I thought I might as well catch up on work while I was up,” says Jenny, 39, who works in communications and lives in London with her husband Lalit, a property developer, and their children, Roma, seven, and Milen, five.
“I know it sounds mad, but I taught myself not to be exhausted. I even found that by 4am, as the sun came up, I’d get a second wind.
“Then I’d be OK until about 4pm. The children would come home from school and tell me about their day, but I’d find it hard to get excited for them.
“Eventually, I’d get to bed around 9pm after nearly 36 hours awake and treat myself to a good nine hours’ sleep.”
But soon the cracks started to show. Jenny started to experience hair loss and dermatitis. Her personal life suffered and, not surprisingly she felt “foggy” and dazed.
“Then one day a doctor asked me about my stress levels. I realised I was taking too much on and it was taking a toll on my health.”
Experts agree that staying awake for prolonged periods is highly dangerous.
“If you stay awake all night, your performance is affected in the same way as it would be if you drank seven bottles of beer,” says Dr Stanley.
“You certainly shouldn’t be thinking about getting in a car and driving.”
Two years ago, Jenny gave up the all-nighters and her symptoms rapidly improved.
Today, she usually gets six to seven hours a night, though admits that if work is piling up, it’s more like four.
“A couple of times a week I still go to bed at 2am and get up at 6am - but I always make sure I have a good intake of supplements, get some extra exercise and listen to a relaxation CD before bed.”
Sally Jones has also given up her extreme sleep cycle. “About 18 months ago I started asking myself what I was doing it for. However successful the business was, there was no point if I felt unwell,” she says.
She decided to go back to getting seven hours a night.
“When you’re properly rested, you’re clear-headed, more focused and more patient, so you get things done more quickly. And, as my husband will attest, you get on with those you love much better.”
Dr Stanley agrees sleep is critical to a happy, healthy life.
“Remember, Albert Einstein was a long sleeper,” he says. “Famous short sleepers? Adolf Hitler and Napoleon. I rest my case.” - Daily Mail