It’s doubtful that Thomas Edison had any idea what the full implications of his incandescent light bulb were. How could he have know that his invention would create the potential and eventually the fulfillment of a 24/7 society, where darkness no longer limits the length of our productive day? Before Edison’s incredible breakthrough, most went to bed when it got dark. (There’s only so much you can do by candlelight.) But today, we create our own daylight with the flick of a switch. As a result, more and more are getting less and less sleep.
Many of us view sleep as a “nice-to-have,” rather than a “need-to-have” activity. Our work ethic leads us to look at sleep as wasteful and unproductive. As a result, sleep deprivation has become a huge problem in hard-driving cultures around the world. Increasing workloads, long commutes, busy after-work schedules and limitless entertainment options lead many of us to shortchange our body’s need for sleep. We often brag to others about how little sleep we are getting. But when we elevate sleep deprivation to the level of an achievement, we are really showing our ignorance.
The average amount of time an adult should sleep is 8 to 8.5 hours per night. Your body needs to sleep one-third of the day to recover from the day’s activities. During that time, your body conducts important maintenance work. Inadequate sleep leads to:
- A reduction in the amount of growth hormone that our bodies produce. This often leads to weight gain, but even if it doesn’t, those who don’t get enough sleep often crave carbohydrates and junk food. Their bodies produce less leptin, a molecule secreted by fat cells that tells our brains when we shouldn’t be hungry, and insulin, which can lead to the onset of diabetes.
- Hypertension and cardiovascular problems. The levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) rise when we are sleep-deprived.
- Less creativity and problem-solving ability. German scientists at the University of Luebeck say they have demonstrated the first hard evidence that during sleep, our brains restructure memories before they are stored.
- A decrease in immune system function as measured by white blood cell count. Sleep researcher Eve van Cauter at the University of Chicago had students sleep no more than four hours a night for six nights. When they are then given a flu vaccine, their bodies only produced half the normal antibodies.
- Impaired judgment and reflexes. A study published in the British journal “Occupational and Environmental Medicine” said that 16% to 60% percent of road accidents involve sleep deprivation. Researchers in Australia and New Zealand have reported that sleep deprivation can have some of the same hazardous effects as being drunk. They found that people who drive after being awake for 17 to 19 hours performed worse than those with a blood alcohol level of .05 percent.
And if these effects aren’t enough, try this one on – sleeplessness causes death. In experiments with lab rats, scientists have observed that a sleep deprived rat quickly develops abnormally low body temperatures and sores on their tails and paws. Soon after, all their hair falls out. While the normal life span of a rat is 2-3 years, rats deprived of sleep live for only about 3 weeks.
In humans, death from all causes is lowest among adults who get seven to eight hours of sleep nightly and significantly higher among those who sleep less than seven. The Japanese have coined the word “karoshi” to describe a type of death that occurs from working too many hours. Some estimates indicate that there are approximately 10,000 deaths from karoshi in Japan every year.
It’s time to make some payments on your sleep debt. Your body is an exacting creditor. It will allow you to borrow from your sleep account, but it always adds the interest to the end of your loan. Sleep now or “sleep” later. If you don’t make some changes in your lifestyle, you might be looking at a large balloon payment at the payoff.