My mother used to say to me, “I’m tired, you go to bed.” I’ve started to say it myself since my son was born. But really, most of us need a bit more sleep. With over-work, over-scheduling and electronic over-stimulation, we have created a culture of chronic sleep deprivation that is impacting our health and productivity more than we might imagine.
The National Sleep Foundation has found that 75% of American adults get less than the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep a night. Scientists have linked insufficient sleep to medical issues ranging from depression to high blood pressure, heart disease and obesity.
Sleep to Slim Down
Three more pounds. That’s all I need to get back to my pre-pregnancy weight (of course, when I was there, I was desperate to lose 6 lbs to get back to my pre-marriage weight, but who’s counting?). Turns out, I don’t necessarily need to spend even more time with my wii-fit trainer… I just need to make sure I’m in bed by 10:00. Obviously, when you’re tired, you don’t necessarily want to work out, but the problem is also biological: studies show people who sleep less than eight hours a night have increased levels of the hormone ghrelin, which makes you feel hungry and lower levels of leptin, which suppresses the appetite and signals to the brain that the body has enough fatty tissue. The result? When you’re tired, you want to eat more and your body stores those calories as fat.
My 11-month old recently had an unusually bad night, waking up three times. When the alarm (his crying) got me up at 6:00, I was cranky, miserable and generally angry at the world. Turns out, this wasn’t just a personality defect. Brain imaging studies reported in Current Biology (10/23/07) have found that “without sleep, the emotional centers of the brain dramatically overreact to negative experiences… Sleep loss leads to emotionally irrational behavior.” Me? Irrational? Well, maybe… Scientist Matthew Walker of the University of California, Berkeley has found that the part of the brain that stores positive memories is affected more by sleep deprivation than the part that stores negative memories (Nurtureshock, pg 35). “Sleep,” he says, “appears to restore our emotional brain circuits…” (Press Release).
One more (nap) for the road
And of course there are the neurological affects: our productivity at work suffers because sleep deprivation hampers our ability to problem-solve and remember new information (Sleep Foundation). In fact, after 20 hours without sleep, our reaction time is comparable to a person with a blood-alcohol level of .08 – the point at which you’d be arrested for driving under the influence (Time Magazine 12/17/04).
And then there’s the most dramatic effect of all: in May, UK and Italian researchers reported that people who regularly sleep less than 6 hours a night increase the likelihood of premature death by 12% compared with people who sleep 6-8 hours (BBC News 5/4/10).
You can do it in your sleep
Conversely, a good night’s sleep can have a significant positive impact. For example, our ability to perform tasks that require repetition and practice improves dramatically when we learn a skill in the evening and have a good night’s sleep, compared with learning the skill in the morning and retesting it twelve hours later. And the age-old advice to sleep on a problem is actually based on good science: studies show the brain is able to work through complicated problems, find solutions and solidify memories while we slumber (Time Magazine). And in our sleep, the brain clears away unimportant information, making way for new neural connections so that we can continue to learn (The Big Think).
Next time you find yourself staring blankly at the TV watching one more episode of Law and Order before bed, keep in mind the words of Dr. Matthew Walker: “The bottom line is that sleep is not a luxury that we can optionally choose to take whenever we like. It is a biological necessity, and without it, there is only so far the band will stretch before it snaps, with both cognitive and emotional consequences.”
I’d tell you more, but it’s time for me to…zzzzzzz.
FOR MORE INFORMTION:
What do you do if you just can’t get to sleep? The BBC’s website has 10 helpful tips.
“Short Sleep Duration Is Associated with Reduced Leptin, Elevated Ghrelin, and Increased Body Mass Index” by Shahrad Taheri, Ling Lin, Diane Austin, Terry Young, and Emmanuel Mignot, Public Library of Science
After exploring five careers in five cities in just over five years, Meghan Thompson has built up a wealth of knowledge about what she does not want to do with her life (including teaching, politics, banking, communications and PR). Meghan is finally doing what she does want to do (writing) where she wants to do it (in England) with the support of her husband, the amazing “rugby bloke” and their incredible son, “Sir Grinsalot,” who joined them in October 2009.