What happens when we don’t sleep?

I see a lot of patients with sleep problems, so when I got the opportunity to speak with Professor Adrian Williams about the science of sleep, I jumped at the the chance. This is the first in a 4-part series of posts which feature Professor Williams talking about his favourite subject. Think of the series as an intro to sleep medicine – Sleep 101.

From an acupuncture point of view the amount and quality of our sleep is one of the most fundamental components of a living a healthy balanced life. It is so primary to general well-being that it’s something I always ask about no matter what a patient’s main complaint might be.

But if your main complaint IS poor sleep you’re likely, according to Professor Williams, to be  experiencing that hit on your cognition called sleepiness. This will almost certainly negatively affect your ability to concentrate and your work and social life may suffer; firstly, because your brain isn’t operating at its peak, and secondly because you might be too tired to care.

While you will definitely be aware of being sleepy and not functioning at your best, insidious changes to how your body functions may be brewing within – you’ll be developing a resistance to insulin and becoming, temporarily at least, pre-diabetic. Your blood pressure also fluctuates abnormally. To me it’s the unseen effects on the delicate balances of the body and mind that are the more serious part of the picture. These are the things that we’re not always aware of, but that always catch up with us at some point – usually when it’s too late to easily treat them.

…the aim of acupuncture treatment is to recognise and treat imbalances before they cause irreversible damage

Acupuncture is great for treating conditions that have a slow-build-up. In this sense, the aim of acupuncture treatment is to recognise and treat imbalances before they cause irreversible damage. I’ll explain more about how acupuncture works to help your sleep patterns balance out as we progress through the Sleep 101 series.

No matter what your reason for seeking acupuncture treatment is, there are always lifestyle choices to be made to complement that treatment and sleep is no different. Now that we’re more aware of what happens when we don’t sleep, Professor Williams will give us his approach to improving sleep next week in Part 2 – How to unlearn insomnia.

Professor Williams’s bio

Professor Williams’s interest in sleep began in 1975 during his tenure at Harvard Medical School with a study in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) which implicated Obstructive Sleep Apnoea as a cause of the syndrome. He became tenured Professor of Medicine at U.C.L.A. and Co-Director of U.C.L.A’s Sleep Laboratory in 1985. He was one of the first to become a Fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM).

On his return to the UK in 1994 he took up he directorship of the Sleep Disorders Centre at St Thomas’s Hospital, was a founding member of the Sleep Section of the RSM and, in 2010, was awarded the UK’s first Chair in Sleep Medicine.

He currently practices at the London Sleep Centre in Harley Street, and has been a Sleep Advisor to Headspace.

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