Sleepy Science: get enough of it!

7 hours? Or 8? Or surviving on 5?

I’m sure almost all of you are accustomed to the feeling of ‘tired’. Whether you’re an insomniac who regularly can’t sleep, or you simply got woken up too early in the morning, the end result is similar: you stumble through the day armed with coffee and wishing for a nap.

Unfortunately, in our fast-paced society, many of us stay up late and wake early, perhaps working or just binging Netflix. Our modern technology allows us to be awake and busy at any time of day or night.

And then even when we do head for bed, there’s considerable research showing that our artificial lighting, particularly blue light from screens, disrupts our natural sleep cycles, so we don’t sleep well at all.

As a result, over a third of adults (in Australia, and similar in other Western countries) report getting insufficient sleep or feeling tired on a regular basis. So, this is the first post in a short series about the science of sleeping, both historical habits and modern situations.

What happens to your body when you don’t sleep enough?

You might be surprised to know that sleep deprivation affects your body in a similar way to alcohol. In fact, it’s estimated that if you drive after 17 hours without sleep, this is equivalent to driving with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.05. Up that to 24 hours sleepless and you’re looking at an effective BAC of 0.10, well past the legal limit. Up to one in four single-vehicles crashes are estimated to be caused by drivers sleeping.

If you do need to drive while sleep-deprived, it’s a good idea to grab a quick power-nap (15-20 minutes) before setting out, taking breaks every 2 hours if you’re driving a long distance or grabbing a cup of coffee for a short-term fix.

But what are the other longer-term effects of sleep deprivation?

  • You can’t think clearly. In fact, sleep deprivation (even in the short-term) affects your decision-making, short and long term memory, attention span and reaction time.
  • Stress. Ironically, sometimes it’s stress that keeps you awake, but also that being awake stresses your body further. When we do sleep, our bodies actually regulate different stress hormones, so a long-term sleep-deficit means you experience more chronic stress which can lead to hypertension and an increased risk of heart disease.
  • Weight gain and obesity. When you’re tired, your body produces extra ghrelin, a hormone that makes you feel hungry, and also extra cortisol, a stress hormone. The two working together mean you feel extra hungry, but tend to eat less healthy foods. Not to mention the fact that you probably don’t feel like exercising when your eyes are already drooping! Long-term, that’s a recipe for really poor health outcomes.
  • It puts you at way higher risk for developing mental health disorders. Just like on days when you’re tired and irritable, if this continues long-term, this can become a habitual way of thinking. And the statistics are astonishing: people with insomnia are 10 times more likely to have depression and 17 times more likely to have anxiety than normal sleepers. It’s still a little unclear which comes first – the poor mental health or the sleeplessness, but the bottom line is that getting enough sleep will help your mental health as well as physical health.
  • And last, but certainly not least, getting enough sleep helps your immune system! In order for your immune system to function at ‘full capacity’ if you like, you need to sleep your full amount. It’s particularly important to note that even as little as a week with diminished sleep (2 hours less per night) can lead to immunodeficiency, reduced immune response to vaccines and greater susceptibility to colds and other common diseases. Certainly not something you want! Get those extra hours and save yourself miserable sick days!

Now given that, it sounds like an awfully good idea to go try and knock out a solid 7 – 8 hours tonight! Or not? We’ll look next time at different sleeping patterns and cycles and how and when you should be sleeping!

Good night all!

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