Skimping On Sleep Can Make You Sick, Fat, And StupidEvery aspect of your life is affected by sleep – or lack of it, from looking and feeling your best to your having a healthy romantic relationship to meeting your goals at work. But in today’s fast-paced, multi-media, mega-worry world, it’s hard to get enough shut-eye with all the to-dos on our lists every day. Unfortunately, sleep deprivation has become the norm.

Insufficient sleep is a huge problem – so much so that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declared it a public health epidemic similar to the warnings issued about smoking cigarettes decades ago. The statistics are shocking and have been sounding the alarm for years. In 2009, a CDC analysis reported: “Among 74,571 adult respondents in 12 states, 35.3% reported <7 hours of sleep during a typical 24-hour period, 48.0% reported snoring, 37.9% reported unintentionally falling asleep during the day at least once in the preceding month, and 4.7% reported nodding off or falling asleep while driving at least once in the preceding month.” That’s just plain scary!

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that every year about 100,000 police-reported, drowsy-driving crashes result in nearly 800 fatalities and about 50,000 injuries. The real number may be much higher, however, as it is difficult to determine whether a driver was drowsy at the time of a crash. A sleep-deprived workforce is less productive, less safe, and more expensive.

Do you want a sleepy doctor performing your surgery, or a pilot flying your plane, or a bus driver picking your kid up for school?

Too Little Sleep Makes You Sick

On an individual level, sleep deprivation can have serious short-term and long-term consequences. After just one night of skimping on sleep, the results can be seen in delayed reaction times, glucose levels, mood, headache, impaired memory, and hormone balances. One study showed that one week of sleeping fewer than six hours a night resulted in changes to more than 700 genes.

Another Swedish study saw changes in men’s brains after not sleeping for just one night indicative of brain shrinkage and damage similar to a brain injury. Yikes! Many studies have linked ongoing insufficient sleep with heart disease, diabetes, depression, early death, and a higher risk for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, stroke, some cancers, and multiple sclerosis.

Too Little Sleep Makes You Fat

Not getting enough sleep also contributes to packing on pounds. Research shows that after a night of insufficient sleep, people have higher levels of hunger hormone and decreased levels of the fullness hormone. Other research shows that too little sleep plays havoc with your fat cells, making them less sensitive to insulin, which could lead to obesity and type 2 diabetes. When people weren’t getting enough sleep, they were more likely to reach for high-calorie carbs and didn’t have the impulse control to turn down that piece of cake.

Too Little Sleep Makes You Stupid

Lack of sleep slows down your thinking, impairs your memory, concentration, judgment, and decision-making, impedes learning, and contributes to depression. Sleep is absolutely essential for your brain to work properly because during sleep your brain is busy processing information, consolidating memories, making connections, and clearing out toxins. When asleep, your brain does its housekeeping and not having adequate time to do this could potentially accelerate neurodegenerative diseases.

Recent research shows that not getting enough sleep may actually shrink your brain.

Sleep needs vary with age and circumstances, but generally, everyone needs seven to nine hours a night for their brain and body to perform best. And while the number of horizontal hours is important, the quality of your sleep is just as important. Several times each night, your brain cycles through different stages of sleep, which determine the quality of your sleep. After an initial five to ten minutes in stage one, your brain moves into a deeper stage two, and over the next hour, it goes to stages three and four, in which the electrical activity slows way down. After slow-wave sleep, your brain progresses into REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, in which it becomes a lot more active.

Your brain runs through all the sleep cycles sequentially about every 90 minutes, then starts over again at the beginning. So, if you don’t sleep continuously and don’t get to go through the entire cycle, your snooze is less restorative to your brain. The quality of your sleep suffers, and you’ll feel it the next day even though the number of hours you slept may be OK.

Sleeping Habits Affect Quantity and Quality

To get quality Zs, you need to practice good sleep hygiene habits, just like dental hygiene. Sleep hygiene is made up of your actions before sleep and your sleep environment – including cutting out the things that might disturb sleep. While improving sleep hygiene won’t take care of all your sleep problems, studies show that it can certainly help.

Some good sleep hygiene habits are:

  1. Don’t nap during the day. Although I do love my naps, if you’re having trouble sleeping at night, it’s probably not a good idea. Naps can disturb your normal pattern of sleep and wakefulness.
  2. Avoid caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol too close to bedtime. Even if you can fall asleep with a caffeine buzz, caffeine disrupts the sleep cycle and reduces the quality of your sleep. While alcohol can speed up the onset of sleep, it disrupts sleep later as the body begins to metabolize the alcohol, causing arousal. And remember, chocolate and many other foods have caffeine.
  3. Exercise for quality Zs. Physical activity improves sleep by helping to synchronize circadian rhythms, reducing stress, decreasing REM sleep, and causing many favorable neurochemical changes in your brain. However, exercising too close to bedtime can rev you up and keep you awake. Vigorous exercise is best in the morning or late afternoon. A relaxing exercise, like yoga, can be done before bed without a problem.
  4. Limit food and drink before sleep. Stay away from large meals close to bedtime as digestion can interfere with sleep and your bladder can wake you up. Also, dietary changes can cause sleep problems. If you are struggling with a sleep issue, it’s probably not a good time to start experimenting with spicy dishes.
  5. Get more natural light. Getting out in the sunshine during your day will boost serotonin, a good-feeling neurochemical, which improves melatonin release, allowing your brain to shut down and sleep. Avoid bright lights and electronic screens – including phones – after the sun goes down because they can throw off your biological clock and sleep.
  6. Establish a regular bedtime routine. This can be the usual little things, like brushing your teeth, washing your face, or reading for a few minutes. Meditating or praying is a great bedtime ritual. Try to avoid heavy conversations and emotional activities before bed. Make it a rule not to bring your problems to bed with you. You need a calm brain for quality rest.
  7. Associate your bed with sleep. It’s not a good idea to use your bed to surf the net, check your phone, watch TV, or listen to music. (Sex is OK though!) If you use the space only for sleeping, your brain will associate it with that.
  8. Ensure that your sleep environment is relaxing and free of disturbances. Make sure your bed is comfortable and the room temperature isn’t too hot or cold. An uncomfortable brain is an active brain. It will also help if your bedroom is really dark with no LEDs emitting light to disturb your subconscious brain. White noise is OK, but other noise, like a TV or music, will hurt quality because your brain registers it even if it doesn’t wake you.
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  1. Whoa! You didn’t hold back with this title! This is important information few people are aware of. I find it distressing that some otherwise pretty smart people think Red Bull and coffee are a substitute for sleep.

    • Thanks for your comment, Deane. I really didn’t think anything of the title until you said that. In my early adulthood, I used to be one of those that prided myself for being able to go without sleep. (Not much choice with little ones.) But not anymore. I love my sleep!

      • This isn’t something I don’t talk about but you are so open I feel like it’s OK to share this here. My first husband was one of those “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” types. And unfortunately he is now deceased. He did not recover from a needed surgery. I’ll never know how big a role his lack of sleep played but I’m convinced it was at least a part of it.

  2. Cathy | Treatment Talk Reply

    Great tips here Debbie! I know I feel so much better when I sleep. Being on the computer right before I go to sleep is disruptive for me, so I’m reading more and that helps. Thanks for a great post!

    • It’s all about our sleep hygeine habits. I find that I need some down time before bed too. Meditation puts me right in a sleep ready sate. (The challenge is to NOT fall asleep while meditating.)

  3. I couldn’t agree more with all you’ve said here Debbie! I’m finally figuring out my triggers that had me getting up at 1am or 2am every night and unable to fall back asleep for hours. I actually still struggle with it but have broken the cycle that had it occurring every night.

    Although I was in bed for seven hours, the quality of my sleep was awful. During the day I felt stupid, forgetting common words or names or unable to follow a fairly simple line of thinking. And I put on a few pounds. Many times while commuting (an hour and a half each way), I’ve had to put extra thought into normal actions while driving (i.e “thinking about” having to stop at a red light).

    I’ve become much more consistent with my daily walking and yoga which have helped with the weight and energy. I also discovered that I’m much more sensitive to caffeine than I imagined. When I cut out that cup or two of java in the morning, I started sleeping through the night. I’ve also learned that a glass or two of wine just before bed will have me up at 2am with my metabolism (body temperature) on overdrive burning up the sugars from the wine. Only one glass at least two hours before bed doesn’t create the negative reaction.

    Sleep is so important. We’re not machines. We all need good quality rest. Great article!

    • Paige,

      I’m glad you were able to remedy your sleep issue with experimenting with behaviors. I firmly believe that when our sleep is out of wack, our body is trying to tell us something else is out of wack in our lives. Unfortunately, this is all too common these days.

      Having had a brain injury, I am so sensitive to sleep. If I don’t get good quality sleep even for one night, I can really tell it in everything from my speech to my memory to my coordination. It’s not a bad thing that it forces me to make it a priority! :).

  4. Jessica Sweet Reply

    There’s a reason sleep deprivation is torture! I’m usually a good sleeper, but when my kids were really little and not sleeping, I felt terrible. You missed one here – not sleeping will make you really, really, grouchy too!

    • Good one Jess! (Although I would have used different descriptive words.) I used to pride myself on being able to go without sleep and it did come in handy when my kids were small, but no more!

  5. It is possible to get by with little or no sleep but you can only do it with meditation. I have sat in meditation round the clock on many retreats ranging from 4 days (the longest time in a 7 day zen retreat) through to three weeks (the longest time in a six week Buddhist retreat), and with spectacular results. We even went hiking after one retreat and had far more energy than those that slept every night. So I recommend anyone suffering with insomnia or who wants to get by with less sleep can meditate instead.

    • Interesting points, Kyrani. I have heard of this, but never experienced it firsthand. On the rare times I find that I can’t sleep, I do meditate, and it usually puts me right to sleep or I feel rested even if I didn’t sleep. I guess the meditative (theta) brain waves can provide some relief to the brain, but I wonder if it can do all the other things (cleaning toxins, memory storage) that it needs to do. I’ll have to explore it further!

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