Isobel Roe and Scott Mitchell
Just five bad nights of sleep can put your body in a pre-diabetic state, and if you are a man it can lead to a dramatic reduction in testosterone, according to a recent report commissioned by the Federal Government.
"Having low levels of sleep is worn like a badge of honour," said Associate Professor Alan Young from the Australian Sleep Association.
"Politicians and even the medical professions ourselves have been guilty of working long hours, restricting sleep times and feeling that this is something that toughens you up. But in actual fact, it's the opposite."
Associate Professor Young is just one of the experts who contributed to a 170-page inquiry report into sleep health awareness in Australia, commissioned by Health Minister Greg Hunt, which was published last week.
The inquiry spells out the health problems associated with bad sleep, including a 20 to 40 per cent increase in the likelihood of developing chronic health issues, a higher risk of obesity, and a close link between sleep health and mental health.
Evidence provided to the inquiry by the Adelaide Institute of Sleep Health suggested that after five nights of bad sleep, a 20-year-old man suffers a temporary reduction in testosterone, "as though he has aged a decade".
Sleep must be treated like fitness and nutrition
Concerns about these effects led the inquiry to recommend the Government should make sleep a priority, treating it with the same importance as fitness and nutrition when it comes to the health of Australians.
University of South Australia psychology professor Siobhan Banks said the inquiry represented the first time a government had acknowledged sleep as a national priority.
"It often doesn't seem to get that same attention from a research or funding perspective," she said, adding that the toll of bad sleep could fly under the radar.
"Sleep is also something where if people do have a problem with it, they often suffer in silence and don't really talk about it."
Damage from lack of sleep among shift workers evident
Recommendations from the inquiry include the creation of nationally consistent approaches to working hours and rest breaks for shift workers.
Peter Biagini, branch secretary for the transport union of Queensland, said the damage from lack of sleep among shift workers was evident in the airport, waste management and general transportation sectors.
"You just have to actually go down to these workplaces and meet and talk to the people who do these different shifts, and they always look sickly and tired," he said. "After a certain period of time, chronic fatigue sets in."
The inquiry also recommended national education strategies to increase community awareness about healthy sleep, with specific attention paid to educating people on how the use of digital devices before bed can disrupt sleep.
The committee was "particularly concerned to hear about the impact that smartphones and other forms of electronic and digital devices may be having on the sleep health of children".
Professor Young welcomed the recommendation that sleep should be treated with a new significance by policymakers.
"Everyone in society will recognise the importance of a healthy diet and exercise, but really sleep should be that third pillar of good health," he said.