Unsteady on your feet? Why sleep deprivation is ruining your walk


Name: Sleep deprivation.

Age: Dates to somewhere around the early 19th century. Before that, nobody knew how much sleep they were supposed to get, so they didn’t feel deprived.

Appearance: Characterised by red eyes, poor focus and an unsteady gait.

That’s being drunk. It is also being sleep-deprived. A new study published in Scientific Reports indicates that a lack of sleep could affect your ability to walk steadily.

Why? Gait is not an automatic process: you have to make constant adjustments in response to external cues, and that requires brain power.

And not getting enough shut-eye messes with your brain? Exactly. The study involved a group of sleep-deprived Brazilian university students, with one acute group staying up all night before taking a treadmill test, trying to walk in time with a metronome.

How did the acute sample do? “They were off the rhythm, they missed beeps, and were performing, in general, worse,” said the study’s lead author, Arturo Forner-Cordero.

Is that the only effect? Nope. Chronic sleep deprivation leads to more than stumbling students. It can increase your risk of any number of conditions.

Such as? Obesity, heart disease, diabetes and death. It could also have a negative impact on your immune system, your sex drive and your fertility.

How much sleep do I need just to avoid bumping into things? “Ideally, everyone should sleep eight hours a night,” said Hermano Igo Krebs, another of the study’s authors. “But if we can’t, then we should compensate as much and as regularly as possible.”

How do you compensate? By sleeping when you can. Test subjects who were allowed to make up a sleep deficit in their free time did better on the treadmill.

So a lie-in is good for you. One recent study suggested that people who catch up on lost sleep at the weekend have a lower risk of depression than those who don’t, but other studies have shown mixed results.

The pressure to get eight hours unbroken sleep every day is the sort of thing that keeps me up at night. It’s more recent than you think. Historical evidence shows that, from ancient times to the 18th century, people tended to split their night’s sleep into two distinct chunks of about four hours each, with an hour or two of reading, eating or sex in between.

I could get used to that. No you can’t; you’ve got work.

Do say: “A cure for chronic sleep deprivation? Certainly! Walk this way.”

Don’t say: “If I could walk that way, I wouldn’t need the cure.”

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