What Sleep Loss Does To Your Body
How many times have you heard someone say that they only need six hours of sleep per night? Culturally the statement implies that the individual is someone who has a busy personal or professional schedule; one that views time spent sleeping as ‘wasted’. After all, what could be less productive than sleep? But according to the National Sleep Foundation, adults require no less than 7–9 hours of sleep per night and when you don’t get this much needed shut-eye, there can be dire consequences.
In our constantly evolving and fast paced society, we are taught to make a tremendous amount of commitments within our twenty-four-hour day. Unfortunately, on the list of priorities, getting a full night of sleep is negligible; we can compromise our sleep to pack more obligations into our day because the consequences seem minimal. What’s the worst thing that’s going to happen if you don’t get enough sleep? You might be tired or irritable, and you can always catch up on your sleep the following night.
It’s not as though “being tired” will actually kill you, right?
The problem is that over the course of a lifetime, sleep deprivation can contribute to a number of life threatening health and wellness issues as well as placing us at an increased risk of accidents and injury. It’s time to start rethinking the importance of a good night’s sleep.
The Physiological Importance of Deep Sleep
What happens to your body when you sleep? Beyond resting your body, there are a number of physiological processes that happen only when you achieve the state of deep sleep. During REM sleep the body produces more white blood cells, which assist with improving immunity to disease and infection. There is also evidence that our brains require rest to process and learn, and that sleep deprivation has a tremendous impact on depression, stress and mood.
How much sleep should you be getting? The National Sleep Foundation breaks down sleep recommendations according to age, with babies and toddlers needing the most sleep (approximately 12-17 hours per day) and adults (between the ages of 18 to 65 years) needing approximately 7–9 hours of sleep per night.
The Health Impact of Long Term Sleep Deprivation
In a study by pharmaceutical company, sanofi-aventis, reported by The Harvard Business Review, “Sleep Deprivation’s True Workplace Costs”, 4,200 employees in a variety of business sectors were polled on their sleep and productivity habits. The study found that while most people thought that 7.6 hours of sleep per night was adequate, the average respondent achieved less than 6.4 hours per night routinely.
The second part of the survey from sanofi-aventis evaluated employee productivity in relation to reported sleep deprivation, and the findings were not surprising: the less you sleep, the less able you are to engage in workplace activities compared to well rested peers. The cost of lost productivity due to poor sleep habits was estimated at $2,500 to $3,156 per employee, depending on the severity of sustained sleep disruption.
Sleep deprivation has been referred to as one of the most important and unaddressed healthcare crises in history. According to a research published in “Extent and Health Consequences of Chronic Sleep Loss and Sleep Disorders”, more than 70 million Americans routinely suffer from sleep disorders and poor quality sleep. What was most interesting about the research was how infrequently health conditions were attributed to sleep deprivation or insomnia; in fact, very few doctors ever ask if sleep is a factor when diagnosing serious conditions like heart disease, chronic fatigue, inflammation or anxiety and depression. The study emphasized the potential to treat health conditions more accurately by including sleep habits in patient wellness profiles, as well as the value of education and awareness to help patients avoid chronic diseases and symptoms directly attributed to prolonged sleep deprivation.
Published research supports that high blood pressure, lower cognitive functioning, increased appetite (and risk of obesity and diabetes), osteoporosis and increased risk of colorectal cancer can all be alleviated with adequate sleep. In 2010, a study titled “Insomnia, Sleep Duration and Mortality” found that men who slept less than six hours of sleep per night were four times more likely to die over a 14-year period than men who achieved 6.5 to 7.5 hours of sleep per night.
How to Create Healthy Sleep Habits
So what has changed culturally to dramatically change our sleeping habits from adequate rest to our current state of chronic under rest? Well for one thing, we work longer hours now than we have historically, and our days are longer. Consequently, the amount of time we have left for other obligations including family, household responsibilities, study and fitness have encroached later into the evening and into our weekends. The shift misplaces the time that used to be spent resting and recharging.
Even if you go to bed early, that doesn’t mean that you will achieve a restful night of sleep. The ability to fall asleep and sustain the deep REM quality sleep required to rejuvenate the mind and body is difficult for many. Some studies indicate that increased dietary sodium, sugar and caffeine contribute to poor sleep quality, while other studies blame our overuse of screen time on televisions, tablets, laptops and smartphones. Bright screens are blamed for ‘tricking’ our natural circadian rhythm (our sense of night and daytime hours), disrupting our ability to fall asleep.
If you are committed to reclaiming your rest, here are some easy-to-follow tips to help you retrain your healthy sleep habits:
- Do not eat a heavy meal at least three hours before bedtime. Limit yourself to a snack if needed no more than 45 minutes before bedtime.
- Avoid using electronic devices or watching television at least one hour before sleeping. Remove them from the bedroom so you will not be tempted to check your email or messages.
- Reduce caffeinated and high glucose drinks.
- Adjust the temperature of your bedroom. It should be an average, comfortable temperature for sleeping (not too hot or cold). Sleep experts recommend a temperature of 60-70 Fahrenheit.
- Evaluate your mattress and replace old, worn out mattresses which offer inadequate support.
Like any other habit that benefits our mental and physical wellness, teaching your body to sleep takes some time and practice. By editing our sleep environments and being aware of the health consequences of sleep deprivation, we can all reclaim our energy, health and vitality by ensuring we get at least seven hours of sleep per night.