According to the documentary, Sleepless in America, co-produced by the National Geographic Channel, 40 percent of Americans are sleep deprived. Many get less than five hours of sleep per night. Percentage-wise, adolescents are among the most sleep deprived.
The consequences are dire, not just for the individual who isn’t getting enough rest, but for those around them as well. While most people don’t give lack of sleep much thought, there are in fact life-threatening consequences.
The Consequences of Sleep Deprivation
Notably, “experts now believe that sleep deprivation may have played a role in the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Staten Island ferry crash, and the Three-Mile Island nuclear meltdown,” the film states. Countless people have also lost their lives to tired drivers who simply dozed off behind the wheel.
It’s important to realize that getting less than six hours of sleep each night leaves you cognitively impaired. Sleep deprivation has also been linked to health effects such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s,1and cancer. Depression and anxiety disorders are also adversely impacted by the lack of sleep.
The Importance of Staying in Sync with Nature
Maintaining a natural rhythm of exposure to sunlight during the day and darkness at night is one crucial foundational component of sleeping well.
This was addressed in a previous interview with researcher Dan Pardi. In it, he explains how exposure to bright daylight serves as the major synchronizer of your master clock—a group of cells in your brain called the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN).
These nuclei synchronize to the light-dark cycle of your environment when light enters your eye. You also have other biological clocks throughout your body that are synchronized to your master clock.
One reason why so many people get so little sleep, and/or such poor sleep, can be traced back to a master clock disruption. In short, most people spend their days indoors, shielded from bright daylight, and then spend their evenings in too-bright artificial light.
As a result, their body clocks get out of sync with the natural rhythm of daylight and nighttime darkness, and when that happens, restorative sleep becomes elusive.
An estimated 15 million Americans also work the night shift, and the adverse health effects of working nights are well documented. As just one example, three years of periodical night shift work can increase your risk for diabetes by 20 percent, and this risk continues to rise with time.
What Happens When You’re Sleep Deprived?
What makes sleep deprivation so detrimental is that it doesn’t just impact one aspect of your health… it impacts many. Among them are five major risks to your mental and physical well-being:
1. Reaction Time Slows
When you’re sleep-deprived, you’re not going to react as quickly as you normally would, making driving or other potentially dangerous activities, like using power tools, risky. One study even found that sleepiness behind the wheel was nearly as dangerous as drinking and driving.
2. Your Cognition Suffers—Both Short- and Long-Term
A single night of sleeping only four to six hours can impact your ability to think clearly the next day. In one animal study, sleep deprived mice lost 25 percent of the neurons located in their locus coeruleus, a nucleus in the brainstem associated with cognitive processes.
Hence, if you’re sleep-deprived you will have trouble processing information and making decisions. This is why it’s so important to get a good night’s sleep prior to important events at work or home.
3. Memory and Learning Declines
The process of brain growth, or neuroplasticity, is believed to underlie your brain’s capacity to control behavior, including learning and memory. However, sleep and sleep loss modify the expression of several genes and gene products that may be important for synaptic plasticity.
Furthermore, certain forms of long-term potentiation, a neural process associated with the laying down of learning and memory can be elicited in sleep, suggesting synaptic connections are strengthened while you slumber.
4. Emotions are Heightened
As your reaction time and cognition slows, your emotions will be kicked into high gear. This means that arguments with co-workers or your spouse are likely, and you’re probably going to be at fault for blowing things out of proportion.
The amygdala controls basic emotions like fear and anger. As discussed in the film, another area of your brain called your frontal cortex, plays a key role in the regulation of emotions, and sleep is vital for its function.
When you’re well rested, your frontal cortex is nicely connected to your amygdala—that deep emotional center—and works almost like “a break to your emotional gas pedal.”
Sleep deprivation causes a disconnect between these two brain centers, allowing your emotions to run amok. Sleep deprivation also plays an important role in mental illness and tends to result in more adverse psychiatric outcomes.
5. Immune Function and Health Deteriorates
Sleep deprivation has the same effect on your immune system as physical stress or illness,5 which may help explain why the lack of sleep is tied to an increased risk of numerous chronic diseases.
For example, research shows that sleeping less than six hours per night more than triples your risk of high blood pressure, and women who get less than four hours of shut-eye per night double their chances of dying from heart disease.
You Need Around Eight Hours of Sleep Every Night
The studies are quite clear and most experts agree, you are seriously fooling yourself if you think you can do fine on less than eight hours of sleep. But eight hours of sleep is not eight hours in bed.
If you go to bed at 10 pm and get out of bed at 6 am, you might say you’ve slept for eight hours. In reality, you probably spent at least 15-30 minutes falling asleep and may have woken during the night one or more times.
With the advent of fitness-tracking devices, however, we now have access to actual sleep data (and more) from wristband users. The data is quite useful on a personal level and they helped me understand that I need to start getting to sleep around 9.30 PM if I hope to get a full eight hours of sleep, which I now typically do.
How to Support Your Circadian Rhythm and Sleep Better for Optimal Health
- Avoid watching TV or using your computer in the evening, at least an hour or so before going to bed.These devices emit blue light, which tricks your brain into thinking it’s still daytime. Normally, your brain starts secreting melatonin between 9 and 10 pm, and these devices emit light that may stifle that process.
- Get some sun in the morning, and at least 30 minutes of BRIGHT sun exposure mid-day. Your circadian system needs bright light to reset itself. Ten to 15 minutes of morning sunlight will send a strong message to your internal clock that day has arrived, making it less likely to be confused by weaker light signals during the night. Also, if you work indoors, make a point to get outdoors for at least a total of 30-60 minutes during the brightest portion of the day.
- Sleep in a dark room. Even the slightest bit of light in your bedroom can disrupt your body’s clock and your pineal gland’s melatonin production. I recommend covering your windows with drapes or blackout shades or using an eye mask.
- Install a low-wattage yellow, orange, or red light bulb if you need a source of light for navigation at night. Light in these bandwidths does not shut down melatonin production in the way that white and blue bandwidth light does. Salt lamps are handy for this purpose.
- Keep the temperature in your bedroom below 70 degrees F. Many people keep their homes too warm (particularly their upstairs bedrooms). Studies show that the optimal room temperature for sleep is between 60 to 68 degrees F.
- Take a hot bath 90 to 120 minutes before bedtime. This increases your core body temperature, and when you get out of the bath it abruptly drops, signaling your body that you are ready to sleep.
- Avoid electromagnetic fields (EMFs) in your bedroom. EMFs can disrupt your pineal gland and its melatonin production and may have other negative biological effects as well. A gauss meter is required if you want to measure EMF levels in various areas of your home. Ideally, you should turn off any wireless router while you are sleeping. You don’t need the Internet on while you’re asleep.
- Use a fitness tracker to track your sleep. Chances are you’re not getting nearly as much sleep as you think and using a fitness tracker that monitors your sleep can be a useful tool to help motivate you to get to bed earlier so you can get eight hours of sleep. When I first started using a fitness tracker, I was striving to get 8 hours of sleep, but my Jawbone UP typically recorded me at 7.5 to 7.75. Part of the equation too is going to bed earlier, as most of us have to get up at a preset time.
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