The Science Focus Book Club are reading Fast Asleep by Dr Michael Mosley this month. To get you started, Short Books have made the first two chapters of Michael’s book available, for free, to book club members.
Fast Asleep: Introduction
Sleep is something we all do; in fact, we spend around a third of our lives in this strange, unconscious state. And yet until recently we understood very little about
what sleep is for, how much we need, and the role that dreams play in improving our mental health.
The good news is that over the last 20 years there has been a revolution in our understanding of sleep and just how important it is. Not so long ago it was fashionable to brag that you hardly slept at all, and the mark of a successful business person or politician was their ability to get by on very little shut-eye. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was held up as a shining example of someone who could operate without much sleep (which turned out to be a carefully cultivated myth), while I remember being told by a grizzled medical consultant, when I complained about the impact that lack of sleep was having on my empathy and judgement, that “sleep is for wimps”. Or, as another put it: “There’s plenty of time to sleep when you are dead.”
Our current attitudes to sleep are very different. Thanks to recent research, we know that too little sleep can devastate your body, brain and microbiome (gut bacteria), dramatically increasing your risk of developing a range of chronic conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and dementia.
And, when it comes to sleep, it’s not just about quantity, but about quality too. We have learned, through extensive sleep studies, that if you don’t get enough of the right sort of sleep, you increase your risk of depression and memory problems. Which is all very worrying, particularly if, like a third of the adult population, you suffer from insomnia.
Fortunately, there are surprising and highly effective ways to improve your sleep quality, ensuring you fall asleep rapidly, get plenty of deep sleep and wake up feeling refreshed. This in turn should boost your happiness, creativity and even life expectancy.
The reason I particularly wanted to write this book is because I am obsessed by sleep and have been for many years, not just from a science perspective, but also on a deeply personal level. For the last 20 years, I have suffered quite badly from intermittent insomnia, to the point where I was in real despair. I wanted to find out what I was doing wrong and, of course, I wanted to find out what I could do to make it better.
I wasn’t always a poor sleeper. When I was a teenager, I could sleep any time, anywhere. I once slept in a photo booth (I had missed the last train home). Another time I slept in a telephone kiosk. I never worried about going to sleep or staying asleep, because that came naturally.
I didn’t always get a good night’s sleep, but that was my choice. Like most teenagers, I was keen to burn the candle at both ends. As a medical student, I often stayed up partying, then went straight into some feverish last- minute cramming. Which I now realise was wildly counterproductive. You need sleep to consolidate your memories, as I will explain in this book.
As my medical training progressed, sleep became ever more precious. I found I just couldn’t function any longer on a few hours’ sleep a night. I became intensely irritable and I’m sure that both my judgement and my empathy were impaired. But, even so, I could still go to sleep and stay deeply asleep for hours when I was given the chance. Despite the disruption to my sleep pattern caused by the irregular hours I had to work, I never had any problem drifting off.
Then, as I entered my late twenties, everything changed. By then I was married and I had started a new career in television. The hours were long and unpredictable, though nothing like as bad as in medicine. At this time my wife, Clare, was working as a junior doctor and regularly working 120 hours a week. It was not unusual for her to be on duty for three or four days with only a few hours of broken sleep a night, which blunted her thinking. She told me that after one particularly gruelling week, she briefly fell asleep standing, during an operation. Fortunately, she woke up before anyone noticed.
Not only did work absorb almost every waking hour, it also began to intrude on our sleep. On the occasions that Clare was actually sleeping at home, she would regularly wake me up in the middle of the night to help her look for patients, which in her sleep-deprived state she was convinced were lost in the cupboards or waiting for her downstairs. Clare has parasomnia, a quite common set of sometimes bizarre nocturnal behaviours, which include a tendency towards sleep- walking and sleep talking.
By the early 1990s, we had started to have children, and that, of course, resulted in many nights of disrupted sleep. In fact, we went on to have four children, which meant that a full decade was dominated by babies.
By the time we entered our forties, Clare was a GP and working more regular hours. Our children were also sleeping through the night. But by then I had begun to show classic signs of insomnia. I had difficulty going to sleep and kept waking up at three in the morning with thoughts rushing through my head. I would lie there for what felt like hours, and going to bed, which was once a real pleasure, was something I began to approach with a sense of unease. Would this be a good night or a bad night? Would I get up feeling shattered or would this be one of those rare nights when I would sleep through until morning?
Naturally enough, I wanted to understand what was going on and what I could do to get back to the days of blissful, effortless sleep. I made what was to be the first of many popular television programmes examining the mystery of sleep. Making these programmes introduced me to lots of sleep scientists and a whole new, fascinating world of sleep research.
To try and understand the impact of severe sleep deprivation, I decided to see how long I could stay awake with a man who holds the unofficial world record. He can go days on end with no sleep without appearing to suffer. What was the secret to his success? Why could he just keep going, while I couldn’t?
Since then I have spent many nights in sleep labs with electrodes attached to my head and body. I’ve taken drugs to put me to sleep and drugs to keep me awake. I have interviewed hundreds of people, ranging from firefighters to doctors, astronauts to police officers, about their sleep. I have also begun to look at the impact of food on sleep and test out different ways to improve sleep quality.
Fast Asleep by Dr Michael Mosley is out now (£9.99, Short Books).
So you’ve got the book. What next?
- Head over to Facebook and join our dedicated group
- Let us know you’re going to be reading with us and tweet using the hashtag #SFBookClub
- Share a picture on Instagram of you reading Fast Asleep
- Send us your questions through Twitter, Facebook or Instagram for Michael
- Tune in to a live Q&A session with Michael and Science Focus [details coming soon]