Did your Grandma ever use the phrase “you’re burning the candle at both ends”? If you substitute an LCD or LED screen for a candle, that idiom — which refers to getting up early and going to bed late — couldn’t be more relevant today. In a culture that combines high productivity with high levels of distraction, today’s professionals – especially young ones – see a regular night’s sleep as an expendable part of life.
We continue to pull all-nighters long after our college years in order to complete work projects or to watch an entire season of a TV show on Netflix. We make deals with ourselves to “sleep in” over the weekend,” but then our work and family commitments spill over into that time too.
So what’s the big deal? Well, while missing a few hours of sleep now and then usually poses no problem, if those hours add up over the course of several days, you may be headed for trouble. Your thinking and reaction time may get fuzzy and your health may suffer as well.
Sleep researcher Derk-Jan Dijk of Surrey (UK) University has led several studies that show sleep is as an essential part of our health as diet and exercise. “Insufficient sleep is increasingly recognized as contributing to a wide range of health problems,” Dijk reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Those problems include hypertension, diabetes, depression and obesity, as well as reduced quality of life and productivity.
The amount of sleep an adult needs to function on all cylinders varies according to the individual, researchers say. Most adults need between seven and nine hours each night, however.
how do you know if you are sleep deprived?
Many of us think we can make up a few lost nights of sleep, but that might not be the case. A study by the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine studied 30 volunteers on a sleep-deprived week that was followed by the extra hours of recovery sleep. While the participants’ stress levels went down with the extra “make-up” sleep, their scores did not improve on several tests designed to measure their cognitive skills.
So how do you know if you are sleep deprived? Here are five warning signs:
1. You’re hungry at the wrong times and for the wrong things.
When we are what scientists call chronically sleep-deprived — lacking one or more hours of sleep each night — our bodies perceive the situation as stress and respond with increased levels of certain hormones. One of these hormones is cortisol, which interferes with insulin function. Studies show that chronic sleep loss can impact our blood sugar levels and cause our bodies to produce less leptin, the hormone which keeps your appetite in check, and more ghrelin, the hormone which helps us know when we are hungry.
The bottom line? You may eat more than usual when you are sleep-deprived, and you might find yourself reaching for more sugary and/or carb-dense foods than normal. Scientists say that the extra eating is the body’s way of compensating for low energy.
2. You forget simple things.
Lack of sleep affects your short-term memory, studies show. Sleep helps our brains repair neurons in the cerebral cortex, which is involved with memory, attention and concentration. Many studies reveal how students’ grades suffer when they have had insufficient sleep. And for the rest of us? We may not be able to find our keys or remember where we parked our cars when we are sleep-deprived.
Feeling more klutzy than usual? Sleeplessness can also affect your motor skills and your ability to react quickly to things around you. Sleep insufficiency has been linked to motor vehicle accidents, industrial disasters, and medical errors.
3. You are more emotional than normal.
Researchers at University of California-Berkeley have connected lack of sleep with the way we handle our emotions. In one study, volunteers who missed a night of sleep and then watched videos with disturbing images had 60 percent more activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain involved in processing fear and anxiety, than the well-rested volunteers. The research also determined that the sleep-deprived participants’ amygdalae connected less with the part of the brain that handles our emotional reactions.
Sleep studies reveal that our tired brains store negative information more effectively then positive information, so much so that being tired can make us feel gloomy and depressed. Basically, we bounce back and can handle life’s ups and downs much better when we are well-rested.
4. You have troubling focusing on one thing at a time.
Lack of sleep impacts your brain’s ability to process information. When you are sleep-deprived, you may find that you have to re-read the same email several times to understand it, or you may have to ask a colleague to repeat what she has just told you. Simple directions may seem overwhelming, and you may find it difficult to stay alert.
Chronic sleep-deprivation may lead to falling asleep at inopportune times. While anyone can get sleepy during a long afternoon lecture or meeting, you know you are in trouble when you find yourself nodding off at the wheel of your car or when you are out with friends.
5. You feel like you are coming down with something – again.
Sleep deprivation can lower your body’s ability to fight off infection. A good night’s sleep helps the body repair and rebuild the cells that help strengthen the immune system.
When you are chronically sleepy, you may find that you have a cold that just doesn’t seem to go away or that you have that achy “I’m getting the flu” feeling that never materializes into the flu. In a study by the National Sleep Foundation, participants who got only four hours of sleep for several nights in a row had a weaker immune response to the flu vaccine than those who slept between seven and nine hours.
Okay, you’re convinced. So short of drinking more coffee, which just masks the problem anyway, what can you do to get some more restful sleep?
Here are some tips from the National Sleep Foundation:
- follow a consistent sleep schedule, even on weekends
- create a regular, relaxing routine that begins an hour or more before bedtime
- make sure your bedroom is dark, quiet and comfortable.
- eat two hours or more before your bedtime
- exercise at least three times a week
- avoid alcohol and caffeine near bedtime
- quit smoking
And lastly, the one tip that may be the most difficult for some of us: keep your electronics – that means cell phones, IPods, laptops, tablets—out of your bedroom.
A 2011 National Sleep Foundation poll found that six in 10 Americans use their computers within an hour of going to sleep, and four in 10 have their cell phones in their bedrooms. Of those respondents, a whopping 87 percent reported troubles with falling asleep at night. The Foundation reports that the devices are most likely a contributing factor to those sleep problems.