The Grapevine

How Lack Of Sleep Harms Your Health: Getting Enough Rest Is Not A Top Priority In Digital Age

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, businesswoman Martha Stewart, and President-elect Donald Trump all have one thing in common: they sleep less and wake up earlier. Sleep deprivation has been touted as a "key to success," but science suggests skipping out on sleep can kill us and our careers. A professor at Penn State finds we’re more likely to sacrifice sleep for the sake of our priorities, from working three jobs to pay the bills to worrying about neighborhood crime.

"If you are sleeping at a regular time, you don't need an alarm clock to get up, and you feel rested, then you are probably getting enough sleep," said Orfeu Buxton, associate professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State, in a statement. "Unfortunately, that is probably the minority of people.”

Lack Of Sleep: Public Health Problem

Insufficient sleep has been labeled as a public health problem by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One in three adults are not getting enough sleep on a regular basis, sleeping six or fewer hours a day, with night shift workers at the highest risk of deficits. Adults aged 18 to 60 years should sleep at least seven hours each night for optimal health and well-being. Sleeping less than seven hours per day is linked to a higher risk of developing chronic conditions, including obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and constant mental distress, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society.

We all know how vital sleep is for our wellbeing, yet very few of us actually get enough sleep.

Buxton suggests many of us have too many demands on our time, and there is not enough time to both sleep, and get everything done. 

He found sleep is seen as less of a foundational priority in people's lives, and more as a “luxury.” Buxton uses the example of the teen who answers texts through the night, or the middle-aged adult who watches TV late into the night.

Framing Sleep The Right Way

We’re framing sleep incorrectly, according to the Penn State professor. Buxton suggests that we associate sleep with a positive outcome instead of seeing it as a hindrance to our to-do list. For example, getting better sleep should be strongly associated with feeling better the next day. Conversely, if we’re tired, we should associate it with a previous action, such as staying out late.

"When people don't get enough sleep, they have more stressors and negative things occur the next day. It's probably not just bad luck” said Buxton.

Woman studying Sufficient sleep is not seen as a top priority for many Americans in the digital age. Photo courtesy of Pexels, Public Domain

Negative Effects Of Sleep Deprivation

Students are one of the groups most susceptible to sleep deprivation. A 2012 study in Child Development found teenagers who regularly stayed up late to study were more likely to be confused in class, or perform poorly on a test. In other words, sacrificing sleep for extra study time is counterproductive.

We live in a culture where sleep is dismissed as a waste of time, which has detrimental effects on our health. Arianna Huffington, co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, personally experienced the pitfalls of poor sleep in 2007, when she collapsed from exhaustion and lack of sleep. Her book The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life One Night At A Time emphasizes that people need to prioritize sleep to reach success.

“In today's fast-paced, always-connected, perpetually-harried and sleep-deprived world, our need for a good night’s sleep is more important — and elusive — than ever,” reads her website on the book.

There’s extensive scientific literature on the importance of sleep, and the negative effects of poor sleep quality, including impairment in various cognitive functions and behavior, including: arousal, attention, cognitive speed, memory, emotional intelligence, and decision making. These symptoms can occur after 16 hours without sleep, and get worse as time goes on.

A 2013 study in Science found sleep is good for the brain because our brain cells need sleep to remove toxic proteins from their neurons. These proteins are by-products of neural activity when we’re awake. The brain is only able to do this efficiently while we’re asleep, so when we don’t get enough sleep, the toxic proteins stay in our brain cells, and can impair our ability to think clearly.

The bottom line: skipping sleep impairs our brain function, slows our ability to process information, problem solve, and be creative, and heightens our stress levels and emotional reactivity.

Sleep isn't a hindrance to success; it may be the key. 

Source: Buxton O. Why do we sacrifice sleep? Penn State News. 2016.

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