A tale of two insomniacs

Serious physical and mental health symptoms of sleep deprivation are relatively unknown Pic: Ilaria Grasso Macola

Two Londoners explain how their sleep difficulties affect them and get advice from the sleep therapist, Tobby Warrener.

A third of our lives are spent sleeping – to put that into context, someone living until they’re 90-years-old would have spent 32 years asleep. Although we don’t think of sleeping as a productive use of our time, our bodies are actually doing an awful lot. Sleep is a compulsory process: without sleep, our bodies and brains are not effective. Experts estimate that adults need eight hours of sleep. Yet, people get an average of about six in the UK. So what are the risks of continuous sleep loss on our everyday lives?

Carly Minsky, 29, a tech journalist from Hackney and insomniac for 18 years.

Carly Minsky has suffered with insomnia for 18 years Pic: Carly Minsky

  • Symptoms: irritability, weak immune system and weight gain

Carly says:

“After a sleepless night, I am very emotionally raw and completely unable to be around other people. When I was writing my masters’ thesis, I was hardly sleeping at all and I was so irritable that I couldn’t face seeing anyone. I also noticed that if I’m not sleeping, it seems to affect my immune system: if I have any cuts, they won’t heal when I don’t sleep. I can also feel very cold when I’m sleep-deprived. And if that wasn’t bad enough, my weight fluctuates. Sometimes I eat a lot more when I don’t sleep because I use sugar and carbs as energy.”

Warrener’s opinion:

“When we can’t switch off mentally and we go to bed, there is too much blood still in our head, it has problems reaching our liver, then what happens is we start over-thinking. The body’s ability to manage stress is really affected by the lack of sleep. Sleep is like our force field; it makes us feel strong. If we’re not able to rest ourselves, it will weaken all the systems that need that rest, that’s where the irritability comes from,” he says. “Our main organs rest during the night, so if our kidneys go to bed after 1 am, it puts a lot of pressure on our drainers. It can also mess up the circulation of our blood, because it pumps around our system during the day and when we go to sleep it retreats to our liver. Sleep has long been shown to protect our immune systems, without it, we don’t respect the natural cycle of life and put our bodies in danger. About the weight gain, it’s because when we feel tired, we tend to overeat during the day as a form of comfort, which contains a lot of fat. It tends to make up for a loss of energy from not sleeping well, so the result is that you’re probably going to put on weight.”

As previously reported in this series, research suggests that serious sleep deprivation can result in cardiovascular diseases and diabetes as well.

Russell Foster, who delivered a TED talk called “Why do we sleep?” in 2014, said that work he’d done suggested that 50 percent of people who sleep for under 5 hours a night are likely to become obese.

Mel Pinet, 35, a baby-wearing consultant and mother to a four-year-old and 17-month-old from Tower Hamlets, has been sleep deprived for four years

Mel Pinet, insomniac for four years Pic: Mel Pinet

  • Symptoms: depression and memory loss

Mel says:

The main issue is with my mental health; you’re so tired that you’re worked up, you have so much stuff that you need to do. I work full time, I do everything at the same time, so when you’re tired, there are times you feel depressed. But it can also be a mental overload. Sometimes you feel like you’re in a blur – that’s what I felt when I had to go back to work after my first kid. I couldn’t do stuff at 100%, I couldn’t remember how to do my own job. It was one of the reasons I had to leave my job and change my whole life.

Warrener’s opinion:

“It might be because someone has too much on their plate, it might be because they’re worried about money, whatever the reason – what this does is raise our stress level, which is not what our parasympathetic nervous system allows or can balance. The parasympathetic nervous system, also called the rest and digest system, can be prevented from doing its job properly if stress and anxiety overtake leading to some different sorts of depression. But on another hand, if you haven’t slept, you don’t have the same ability to absorb information– that cuts down by a huge amount. You don’t process information or form memories as you should during sleep; your brain becomes confused with poor judgment. Your motor skills can also be affected,” he says. “The fact you’re not sleeping means your body is trying to tell you something.”

As a former insomniac, Warrener used to be ashamed of his disease, but now his philosophy is that more often than not, someone saying “’I didn’t really seep well last night’ is overlooked”. In fact, it isn’t something we should accept as a way of life; it’s something we should seek help for because sleep deprivation is a treatable illness.

Follow our Sleepless London series this week to find out more about sleep loss and the impact it can have. #SleeplessLondon

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