The Gift of Sleep
“Sleep is a symptom of caffeine deprivation.”
“If people were meant to pop out of bed, we would sleep in toasters.”
“I’ll sleep when I am dead.”
“The worst thing in the world is to try to sleep and not to.”
“Without enough sleep, we all become tall two-year olds.”
“The amount of sleep required by the average person is five minutes more.”
“A day without a nap is like a cupcake without frosting.”
Sleep is a remarkable landscape nearly every person traverses each night, but without any recollection of doing so. We move in and out of different phases of sleep, we dream, we may turn and occasionally toss, we wake up in the middle of the night or not, and if we do, we may not realize it. We may sleep, but get up and feel like we didn’t sleep at all. We may talk or walk in our sleep, or, in extreme cases, we may eat, leave the house or hurt others with no memory of having done so.
It is a strange place indeed. When the nightly trip there isn’t of high quality, however, we pay the price the next day. If we continue to experience many nights of poor or too little sleep, and this becomes our pattern, we place ourselves at risk for many illnesses.
While every one of us sleeps—even those few who insist they can never sleep—most of us could not give an accurate description of what sleep is. We simply put ourselves to bed, and it typically just happens. Sleep researchers characterize sleep as:
- a period of reduced activity
- decreased responsiveness to external stimuli
- a state that is relatively easy to reverse, as opposed to a comatose state, or hibernation (in animals)
- associated with a typical posture such as lying down with eyes closed
- decrease in body temperature by 1-2 degrees
- breathing rate decreases and becomes more regular
- overall reduction in heart rate and blood pressure
- physiological changes including increased release of growth hormone, digestion, cell repair and growth
- dreaming occurs
Anyone who values a good night’s sleep will tell you they prioritize sleep over other activities that may impede a good night’s sleep, including socializing, watching TV and getting work done. Anyone who doesn’t value sleep will tell you they have better things to do: socializing, watching TV and getting work done, to name a few. Many people fight the feeling of being tired or fight falling asleep, so they don’t go to bed. Others feel they need the extra time to accomplish work tasks—tasks related to their job, as well as housekeeping. College students—as well as many high school students—compromise the amount of time they sleep in exchange for more time to complete homework—or to have fun. Then, there are those who involuntarily give up sleep, typically as a parent of a baby or young child who does not sleep well, as well as those who are caregivers for family or loved ones who are ill and require care. There are also those who do not get enough sleep not by choice, but are kept from sleep by pain, anxiety and many other factors that cause insomnia.
No matter what the reason for too little sleep, it has the same unfortunate consequences. Sleep experts recommend between 7-9 hours of sleep nightly, but no more than nine, as this can cause other health issues.
There are both short-term and long term consequences of too little sleep. Short term effects include:
- poor judgment
- negative mood
- ability to learn and retain information
- increased risk for accidents and injury
Long-term effects include:
- risk of diabetes
- increased obesity
- cardiovascular disease/increased blood pressure
- reduced lifespan
- poor judgment and risk of accidents/injury
Sleep should be considered a priority, not a luxury. Sleep researchers are partnering with other medical researchers to determine more exactly the relationship between sleep deprivation and disease. There are three main types of studies that researchers use to study this link:
- Sleep deprivation studies: subjects are deprived of sleep in order to study the short-term effects of lack of sleep.
- Cross-sectional epidemiological studies: examination of questionnaires providing information about sleep habits and disease patterns.
- Longitudinal epidemiological studies: the most convincing of the three types, this involves tracking the sleep habits of subjects and correlating them with their overall health and disease patterns.
It is common knowledge that proper diet and regular exercise are crucial for maintaining a healthy weight. It is now becoming increasingly obvious to researchers that insufficient sleep is a major factor in weight gain, perhaps a factor just as important as diet and exercise. Studies show that people who habitually sleep less than six hours per night are more likely to have a higher body-mass index (BMI), and those who sleep eight hours have the lowest BMI measurements.
During sleep, the human body secretes hormones that control appetite, energy metabolism and glucose processing.
- Cortisol, the “stress hormone” is secreted in higher amounts with poor sleep.
- Insulin is the hormone that promotes fat storage and regulates insulin, and it is secreted in higher amounts with poor sleep.
- Leptin is the hormone that alerts the brain that it has had enough food, and its secretion is decreased with poor sleep.
- Ghrelin is a biochemical that stimulates appetite. Poor sleep increases this stimulation, causing food cravings even when we are full, especially foods such as sweets that have little nutritional value.
Adding to all these factors that are related to diet, we are likely too tired and too full to exercise in order to burn off excess food intake.
The cost of poor sleep affects the individual, but also can negatively affect the entire society. Many automobile accidents kill innocent people, and they are caused by people who are sleep deprived. On a much larger scale, costly disasters have been known to be caused by extreme sleep deprivation. The following tragedies were studied in depth, and it was revealed that sleep deprivation was a major factor in all of them:
- Three Mile Island Nuclear Disaster, 1979
- Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster, 1986
- Space Shuttle Challenger Explosion, 1986
- Exxon Valdez Grounding, 1989
In addition to these highly publicized disasters, it has been shown that sleep deprivation has caused a significant number of medical errors. Doctors who work continuous shifts of 24-36 hours cannot make sound medical decisions, and nurses who are required to work long, strenuous shifts struggle to make the best decisions for their patients.
When the body determines it is time to sleep, the pineal gland in the brain secretes melatonin, the hormone that alerts the body to begin to shut down. This should happen at approximately the same time every night, as every person has a cycle that should correspond to daily rhythms, known as the circadian system. This system regulates many bodily functions on a 24-hour basis. Another internal system that is important to consider is the sleep/wake homeostat, which counterbalances the circadian system as it monitors the need for sleep based on how long we have been awake. These two systems do operate independently, and can sometimes contradict each other. This misalignment is demonstrated when we experience jet lag, or when one tries to train their body to stay awake for shift work.
There is always hope. If you are one who sleeps too little by choice, choose to make good sleep a priority. After you have made this decision, the following tips may help you get started.
- reduce caffeine intake after 4:00 p.m.
- exercise regularly, but not within two hours of bedtime
- limit screen time—TV, devices—for an hour before bed. This type of artificial light stimulates the brain to stay awake
- make your bedroom as dark as possible, and cool rather than warm
- go to bed and get up at the same times daily, even on weekends
- practice stress reduction techniques if stress keeps you awake, including deep breathing exercises.