Sleep – why is it so important?

We spend a third of our lives doing it, or at least we’re meant to. Most of us know that a poor night’s sleep, or a continuous stretch of poor sleep can wreak havoc on our minds and bodies…and our guts.

Speaking to The Observer in 2017, Sleep Expert Dr Matt Walker said,

“Humans are the only species that deliberately deprive themselves of sleep for no apparent reason.” In case you’re wondering, the number of people who can survive on five hours of sleep or less without any impairment, expressed as a percent of the population and rounded to a whole number, is zero.”

The Risks

That’s a stark statement and one worth taking heed of. In recent years it has seemed like getting only five/six hours (or even less) of sleep is something to be proud of – it isn’t. Research has shown that a chronic lack of sleep or poor quality sleep is associated with a number of health risks including weight gain, high blood pressure, heart disease, depression and diabetes.

There are two parts to our sleep cycle–REM (rapid eye movement, this is the phase of sleep when we dream) and non-REM sleep. Studies have shown an association between REM sleep and lifespan, whereby a 15% reduction in REM sleep was associated with a 13% reduction in lifespan.

Sleep helps to prevent cardiovascular diseases, regulates our immune system and function, controls our metabolism, manages mood, enables knowledge retention, aids memory, and in children and teenagers, it supports their growth and development. That is all hugely impressive and so you can see what is being severely undermined if we don’t get enough sleep.

It’s not just long term potential health risks that we gamble with if we don’t get enough sleep but also poor school and work performance, and accidents. According to the Irish Road Safety Authority;

“It is estimated that driver fatigue is a contributory factor in as many as 1 in 5 driver deaths in Ireland every year. Furthermore, tiredness-related collisions are 3 times more likely to be fatal or result in a serious injury because of the high impact speed and lack of avoiding action. A survey* of drivers’ attitudes to driver fatigue conducted by the RSA in 2014 revealed that over 1 in 10 motorists have fallen asleep at the wheel.” 

The risks can be particularly high for commercial drivers or shift workers due to the length of time they spend on the road and regularly disrupted sleep patterns. If this is you then we suggest that you heed the advice of the RSA (

Sleep and COVID-19

At present, COVID-19 is never far from our minds – people are anxious, routines have been turned upside down, there has been huge loss, many bedrooms have become home offices and so it’s no surprise that more and more people have reported difficulty sleeping in recent months. This isn’t good news for our mental or physical health. While studies have shown that many people report getting more sleep since the pandemic, the quality of their sleep may not be as good, and a new term has been coined -‘Covidsomnia’.

In January 2021, BBC Worklife reported:

“In the UK, an August 2020 study from the University of Southampton showed that the number of people experiencing insomnia rose from one in six to one in four, with more sleep problems in communities including mothers, essential workers and BAME groups. In China, insomnia rates rose from 14.6% to 20% during peak lockdown. An “alarming prevalence” of clinical insomnia was observed in Italy, and in Greece, nearly 40% of respondents in a May study were shown to have insomnia. The word “insomnia” was Googled more in 2020 than it ever had been before.”

People with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) more commonly report poor sleep as being a problem, and when you add the pandemic and possible anxiety to the mix you get quite the recipe for gut problems.

So what can you do?

Visit our Sleep Self Care section for simple changes that you can make to improve your amount and quality of sleep.

We all need to make a sleep priority. For ourselves and each other.  

©The Gut Experts 2021

*Dr Walker’s 2019 TED Talk, Sleep is Your Superpower is a great 20 minute watch if you’d like to learn more about sleep and its impact on the body.



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