If sleep were a credit card company, many of us would be in deep trouble.
The irony of it all is that many of us are suffering from sleep deprivation so that we can work more, but the drop in performance ruins any potential benefits of working additional hours.
In the United States alone, studies have estimated that sleep deprivation is costing businesses over $100 BILLION each year in lost efficiency and performance.
As Gregory Belenky, Director of the Sleep and Performance Research Center at Washington State University puts it:
“Unless you’re doing work that doesn’t require much thought, you are trading time awake at the expense of performance.”
And this brings us to the important question: At what point does sleep debt start accumulating? When do performance declines start adding up? According to a wide range of studies, the tipping point is usually around the 7 or 7.5 hour mark. Generally speaking, experts agree that 95 percent of adults need to sleep 7 to 9 hours each night to function optimally.
Here’s another way to say it: 95 percent of adults who get less than 7 hours of sleep on a routine basis will experience decreased mental and physical performance. According to Harvard Medical School, “The average length of time Americans spend sleeping has dropped from about nine hours a night in 1910 to about seven hours today.” And according to Dr. Lawrence Epstein at Harvard Medical School, 20 percent of Americans (1 in 5) get less than six hours of sleep per night.
Most adults should be aiming for eight hours per night. Children, teenagers, and older adults typically need even more.
Medical evidence suggests that for optimum health and function, the average adult should get seven to nine hours of sleep daily. But more than 60% of women regularly fall short of that goal. Although each hour of lost slumber goes into the health debit column, we don’t get any monthly reminders that we’ve fallen in arrears.
In fact, the greater the sleep debt, the less capable we are of recognizing it: Once sleep deprivation — with its fuzzy-headedness, irritability, and fatigue — has us in its sway, we can hardly recall what it’s like to be fully rested. And as the sleep debt mounts, the health consequences increase, putting us at growing risk for weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and memory loss.
In some cases, sleep debt results from insomnia or other underlying conditions that may require medical attention. But most sleep debt is due to burning the candle at both ends — consistently failing to get to bed on time and stay there until we’ve slept enough.
Fortunately, sleep doesn’t charge interest on the unpaid balance, or even demand a one-for-one repayment. It may take some work, but you can repay even a chronic, longstanding sleep debt.
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How we sleep
We need sleep, and, in a sense, we’re programmed to be sure that we get it. The body summons sleep in two ways: by boosting circulating levels of the neurotransmitter adenosine and by sending signals from the circadian clock, which controls the body’s daily rhythms. Together, these two systems establish an ideal bedtime for each of us.
Adenosine is partly a by-product of the cells’ energy expenditure. As our cells produce power to move us through the day, adenosine is released into the bloodstream and taken up by receptors in the brain region that governs wakefulness (the basal forebrain). There, it acts like a dimmer switch, turning down many of the processes associated with wakefulness, such as attention, memory, and reactions to physical stimuli. As brain levels of adenosine mount, we feel drowsier. (Caffeine keeps us awake by blocking adenosine receptors in the brain.) When we sleep, our energy needs fall, and the level of circulating adenosine drops. After a good night’s sleep, the level is at its lowest, and we are most alert.
The circadian clock regulates all body functions — not just the pattern of sleeping and waking during the 24-hour cycle, but also fluctuations in body temperature, blood pressure, and levels of digestive enzymes and various hormones. Most of us experience a major “sleepiness” peak between 12 a.m. and 6 a.m. and a minor one between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. Of course, individuals vary. The larks among us might be ready for bed at 9 or 10 p.m. and awake at 5 a.m., while some night owls don’t fall asleep until well after midnight and prefer sleeping until noon.
Advice for avoiding sleep deprivation
Why we need sleep
Although sleep doesn’t trump food and water in the hierarchy of physical needs, we can’t live without it. Given the ethical limits on research involving human subjects, scientists have no direct evidence on how extended sleeplessness — that is, beyond a few days — affects human beings. Laboratory rats, however, have been deprived of sleep for long periods, and after a week or two, the results include loss of immune function and death from infections.
In a landmark study of human sleep deprivation, University of Chicago researchers followed a group of student volunteers who slept only four hours nightly for six consecutive days. The volunteers developed higher blood pressure and higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and they produced only half the usual number of antibodies to a flu vaccine. The sleep-deprived students also showed signs of insulin resistance — a condition that is the precursor of type 2 diabetes and metabolic slowdown. All the changes were reversed when the students made up the hours of sleep they had lost. The Chicago research helps to explain why chronic sleep debt raises the risk of obesity, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
Sleep loss exacts a toll on the mind as well as the body, as shown by a study done at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard Medical School. The researchers studied 48 healthy men and women, ages 21 to 38, who had been averaging seven to eight hours of sleep nightly. They assigned three-quarters of the volunteers at random to three different groups that slept either eight, six, or four hours nightly; a fourth group agreed to go without sleep for three days. Every two hours during their waking periods, all the participants completed sleepiness evaluation questionnaires and took tests of reaction time, memory, and cognitive ability.
Over the course of two weeks, reaction times in the group that slept eight hours a night remained about the same, and their scores on the memory and cognitive tasks rose steadily. In contrast, scores for the four-hour and six-hour sleepers drew closer to those of the fourth group, whose scores had plummeted during their three days without sleep. After two weeks, the four-hour sleepers were cognitively in no better shape than the sleepless group after its first night awake. Their memory scores and reaction times were about on par with those of the sleepless after their second consecutive all-nighter. The six-hour sleepers performed adequately on the cognitive test but lost ground on reaction time and memory, logging scores that approximated those of the sleepless after their first night awake.
Meanwhile, the six-hour and the four-hour sleepers were failing to gauge reliably how sleepy they had become. At the end of the study, their self-rated sleepiness scores were leveling off, even as their performance scores continued to decline.
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How To Overcome Sleep Deprivation
1. Napping was found to be both physiologically and psychologically beneficial to sleep deficient people. Napping for 20 minutes can help refresh the mind, improve overall alertness, boost mood and increase productivity. Napping may benefit the heart. A nap is a short period of sleep, typically taken during daylight hours as an adjunct to the usual nocturnal sleep period. Naps are most often taken as a response to drowsiness during waking hours.
2. Sometimes even getting in half an hour earlier can help you achieve more. Consider moving closer to the office to reduce travel time. Flexi-timing is another option- going in early and leaving before rush hour can cut time and stress.
3. If you’re doing rotating shifts, schedule a clockwise rotation, so that the new shift will have a start time that is later than the previous shift. Also, stick to a particular shift for at least a week.
4. Reduce exposure to sunlight by making the room dark and noise-free with heavy drapes to sleep soundly during the day.
5. Emails, social networking, web browsing are addictive and also alert the mind. Avoid these just before sleeping hours.
6. Don’t sleep with the smart phone in your bed.
7. Travelling across different time zones affect the circadian rhythm. It may take several days to readjust to the new time zone. Adapt to the new schedule on the flight; change your watch to the time zone of the destination; stay hydrated and active. Get sunlight exposure whenever possible—it is a powerful stimulant for regulating the biological clock.
8. Late-night movies and partying, often at the cost of sleep, leaving us exhausted. Don’t schedule late nights on weekdays. Plan them for days you have the option of sleeping in the next morning so you get the sleep your body needs.
9. Have a warm shower, listen to soothing music, meditate and visualize a happy memory, so that you go to bed feeling positive and calm good for sleep and for life itself.