Why Society’s Compulsion to Function on Less Sleep Hurts Us

We Americans believe that with enough hard work, we can achieve anything. Like all aspects of life, however, a good thing can be carried to an extreme and reach a point of diminishing returns. Sleep is no exception.

Management experts know that the key to a successful career is balance. The race of life is long, and if we do not devote sufficient time to sleep as well as leisure in order to refresh our brains, we will become increasingly irritable, fatigued, and inefficient. In other words, no matter how smart we are, a lack of sleep will reduce our mental abilities.

The present economic circumstances, unfortunately, have helped to exacerbate this sleep-deprivation trend. Many individuals in the lower and middle classes have had to take on multiple jobs to maintain their lifestyles, leaving little time for sleep or leisure. College students have been forced to work several jobs and take out loans to pay for school. Ironically, by working harder to fund their education, the loss of sleep interferes with their ability to learn. Sleep deprivation can also lead to an inebriated-like state, potential obesity, and depression.

Sleep Deprivation = Intoxication
Sleep deprivation has been shown to be as harmful to performance as being legally intoxicated. Remaining continually awake for 17-19 hours slows reaction times to the same extent as drinking two glasses of beer, and further sleep deprivation is comparable to an individual with a 0.1 percent blood alcohol level over the legal limit. We think sleeplessness is safe, but in reality, loss of sleep puts us in harm’s way to the same degree as a heavy night of drinking.

Obesity and Depression from Sleep Deprivation
Sleep deprivation also encourages us to overeat, increasing the likelihood of obesity. When we are tired, our normal appetite suppression response is diminished, and we are less likely to be satisfied after we eat. Those who are sleep-deprived are more likely to snack, and the resulting increased caloric intake causes weight gain, which, in turn, puts extra stress on the heart, pancreas, and joints.

Obese individuals are more likely to have high cholesterol and triglyceride levels that result in atherosclerosis of blood vessels. When an atherosclerotic plaque enlarges, it can cut off blood supply to the coronary arteries, causing a heart attack; it can also cut off blood to the peripheral blood vessels, leading to a loss of blood supply to the legs and feet. Atherosclerosis, in combination with diabetes, is another very frequent complication associated with obesity. These two diseases, when combined, increase the risk of an ischemic limb (a foot or leg that receives an insufficient blood supply) that may require amputation.

Finally, obesity puts more stress on joints during normal day-to-day physical activities.  Knees and hips wear out more quickly. Notice how often people who are overweight limp and appear to have arthritis. Degenerative arthritis eventually develops in virtually all those who have extreme weight problems.

In addition to all the damage to the body, sleep deprivation can lead to depression. Depression results in further fatigue and loss of energy, and increases the likelihood one will call in sick. In an extreme case, it can lead to suicide.

We Need REM and a Normal Sleep Schedule
By understanding that sleep is a necessity and not a luxury, we can all put sleep into proper perspective. Instead of feeling guilty when we sleep, we should feel guilty when we do not get eight hours of sleep a night.

Neuroscientists know that REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is required for the brain to synthesize proteins to create long-term memories. Without sleep, the ability to concentrate is compromised. College students, for example, aren’t able to learn, and the purpose of college is defeated because they cannot create the long-term memories needed to secure the new material they are being taught in class.

We can remedy this loss of sleep by establishing a normal sleep pattern. Go to bed at the same time each night. If you are required to get up at 6 a.m. for work, you should always go to sleep by 10 p.m. By creating a regular sleep pattern, your body’s circadian rhythm should adjust over 1-2 weeks, and you will naturally feel tired at 10 p.m. When trying to fall asleep, take deep breaths and concentrate on relaxing every muscle in your body. Some people like to listen to relaxation tapes, while others like white noise. Reading before bed can also clear your mind of your day-to-day worries, making it easier to fall asleep.

Sleep is Good and Essential
While we may pride ourselves on the ability to function on minimal sleep, the resulting effects can be harmful to our bodies. In the long run, being able to obtain a good night’s sleep far outweighs the short-term benefits of meeting a deadline. By carefully organizing our work schedules, we can prevent the need to remain awake for unnaturally prolonged periods. Get a full night’s rest and you can avoid the negative side effects of sleep deprivation.

Your friends, family, and clients deserve your full attention and your full mental capacity.

Frederick Southwick

Dr. Frederick Southwick is a professor of medicine at the University of Florida and manages New Quality and Safety Initiatives for the University of Florida and Shands Health Care System. He also is the author of Critically Ill: A 5-Point Plan to Cure Healthcare Delivery.

One thought on “Why Society’s Compulsion to Function on Less Sleep Hurts Us

  • August 23, 2012 at 11:01 am

    Thank you for sharing. Please have your readers research my natural Sleep Tonic, Escape to Sleep on my website and FB page. It is based in organic aloe vera water and it is infused with time-honored and tested herbs used for insomnia, anxiety and nervousness. Sleep Well, Live Longer!


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