Why It’s Time to Treat Sleep Deprivation Seriously

Sleeping more may just change your life.


Image Courtesy of Unsplash.

Imagine you land on a distant planet. What would you need to survive? Breathable air, water, food, and a reasonable temperature certainly make the cut, but you might as well add a comfortable horizontal surface too, because like air, water, and food, sleep is required for life. Deprive a rat of sleep for a few weeks, and he’ll be dead by the end of the experiment. Give him as much food and water as he desires, fill his cage with nice bedding, keep it at a pleasant temperature, but keep him awake. Over the next week or so, his behavior will become increasingly erratic, his fur will start falling out in clumps, his skin will ooze with open sores, his core temperature will plummet, his body will have cannibalized his muscles for fuel, and one day, he’ll be dead.

You don’t often hear of humans dying from total sleep deprivation, but it does happen. In 2012, an otherwise healthy 26-year-old Chinese soccer fan died from lack of sleep during the Euro Cup tournament. He worked during the days, and then stayed awake all night to watch the matches in real time. On the eleventh night, he collapsed from exhaustion and died. In 2013, a 21-year-old banking intern died after working 72 hours in a row. Their fates are shared by hundreds of people who suffer from the horrendous disease Fatal Familial Insomnia, which kills every single person who has the misfortune to inherit it. 
 
Luckily, people do not often die directly from sleep deprivation because we have an excellent self-defense measure against this threat: nodding off. The chin drop, the heavy eyelids, and the ‘microsleep’ lapses of consciousness are all physical signs that our brain is in desperate need of sleep. In this case, our brains will force us into unconsciousness, no matter where we are or what we are doing. For about five Americans every day, this is how their life ends: falling asleep at the wheel.

Let’s take this sleep-as-survival premise a step further. How willing would you be to live for one month with just 70% of what your body requires to maintain life? Imagine one month of eating just 1250 calories a day: your metabolism and body temperature would drop, you would burn muscle for fuel, you would constantly crave food, you couldn’t concentrate, you wouldn’t have the energy to exercise or socialize, and your mood would be abysmal.

What if you only had 70% of the water you needed? Your thirst would be maddening, your body would recycle your urine so that what little you peed would be a rusty orange color, you would do away with relative luxuries like saliva and well-hydrated skin. Your lips would crack, your muscles would cramp, and you’d be lucky to make it a week without a seizure. What about a blood oxygen drop to 70% saturation? If you’ve had an asthma attack, carbon monoxide poisoning, altitude sickness, or a near drowning, you have some idea of the pain this entails.

Now imagine going one month with only five or six hours of sleep a night, about 70% of the sleep most adults need. You would likely be constantly fighting off sleep during the day, your anxiety levels would rise, while your mood sank. It would take you longer to focus; sometimes you would need to read a sentence three times just for it to make sense. You would find it more difficult to care about your job, to be empathetic in your relationships, and to problem solve. Your metabolism would slow and you would put on weight. To make matters worse, you would also be more likely to catch a cold, or that stomach virus that’s going around. 
 
Sound familiar? At least one in three Americans is consistently sleep deprived. When we are sleep deprived, our bodies subtly shift our physiology into emergency mode. This panic mode can help power us through an occasional all-nighter, but there’s a serious price to pay for a sustained lifestyle of insufficient sleep in the increased risk for obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and coronary heart disease.

The organ that is the most immediately impacted by sleep deprivation is the brain. The thoughts we have, the moods we endure, and the decisions we make while sleep deprived are not the same ones we would experience when fully rested. Consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. At the very base is sleep, a physiological need that when unmet undermines higher levels — self-concept, familial and romantic relationships, artistic pursuits, and professional achievement — things we invest so much time and energy in trying to maintain and improve. 
 
 Sleep is life supporting. Let’s start treating it like the precious resource it is.

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