If You (Don’t!) Snooze, You Lose

Written on by Kathryn Lerro

Sleep. Without enough of it we are drowsy, cranky and inefficient. Our bodies crave sleep like they crave food and water. But there are much bigger reasons why we need to sleep and there are frightening consequences when we don’t get the amount or quality of sleep we need.

Why is adequate sleep so important?

    • To keep us emotionally healthy: while we sleep, events of the day are processed and put into perspective. During deep sleep, the subconscious brain essentially functions as a psychotherapist, helping us make sense of what we experience during our waking hours.
    • Proper sleep facilitates good decision-making. Studies show that when making an important decision, better choices are made after taking a night to “sleep on it.”
    • A good night’s sleep after a day of learning helps the brain retain newly acquired information.
    • Sleeping well is vital to maintaining a healthy weight because it influences the production of digestive hormones. Adequate sleep increases production of leptin, which causes a feeling of fullness. Adequate sleep decreases production of ghrelin, the “hunger hormone” that enhances appetite.
    • Getting enough restful sleep causes children to be healthier, to eat healthier foods, to be more active, and to perform better in school.

How much sleep should we be getting? Are most people getting enough?

    • Research has shown that 95% of adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night. Adolescents need more: between 8.5 and 9.5 hours per night.
    • Of concern to researchers is the fact that Americans are sleeping about 2 hours less each night than they did 50 years ago.
    • In this country it is estimated that 40% of adults, as well as an astounding 70% of adolescents, are sleep-deprived.
    • Scientist Tom Rath says, “Most people need seven hours of sleep just to be in the game the next day and ideally eight to have enough energy to win.”

Can you catch up on lost sleep?

Some experts seem to think so—at least in theory. The problem is this: if you miss two hours of sleep per night from Monday through Friday, you are operating at a deficit of about 10 hours. It is unrealistic to believe you’ll sleep an extra 5 hours on Saturday and again on Sunday. Sleeping a few extra hours on the weekend will still have you in deficit mode. Getting the same amount of sleep every night is generally considered to be the healthiest habit.

What are the problems associated with not getting enough sleep?

    • Short sleep—as well as disrupted sleep—hinders the immune system. For example: studies have shown that cancer grows twice as fast in animals experiencing shortened, disrupted sleep. And just one week of inadequate sleep can cause a healthy person to become pre-diabetic.
    • Short sleepers eat more than they need to: around 500 more calories per day than people who sleep enough, and they tend to crave high-carbohydrate, sugary foods.
    • Research has shown that people who sleep less than six hours per night have a 48% higher risk of developing coronary heart disease and a 15% higher risk of suffering a stroke.
    • The body clears wastes from the brain most effectively during sleep. If allowed to accumulate, these waste materials can lead to Alzheimer’s disease and other degenerative brain disorders. Short sleepers put themselves at higher risk of developing these diseases.
    • “Sleep deprivation increases the risk of a sleep-related [automobile] crash; the less people sleep, the greater the risk. According to a study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, people who sleep 6 to 7 hours a night are twice as likely to be involved in such a crash as those sleeping 8 hours or more, while people sleeping less than 5 hours increased their risk 4 to 5 times.” (Drowsydriving.org)
    •  Sleep deprivation is believed to have been a causative factor in the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown and the Staten Island Ferry crash.

Clearly, getting enough sleep is incredibly important, but getting the sleep we need isn’t always as easy as it should be. In part two of this article, we’ll explore some ways to facilitate sleep: to fall asleep, stay asleep and get the best kind of sleep.


Tom Rath, Eat Move Sleep (Missionday, 2013)




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