By Wayne Caswell
Sleep deprivation has become a terrifying problem in our on-the-go society, where working more and sleeping less can be seen as a badge of honor. But even nodding off momentarily can have disastrous results, as we saw in graphic news reports of the December Bronx Metro-North train derailment.
“I was in a daze,” engineer William Rockerfeller told investigators about the moments leading up to the crash. “I don’t know what I was thinking about, and the next thing I know, I was hitting the brakes.”
Sleep scientists think Rockerfeller may have slipped into what’s known as microsleep, when parts of the brain are awake and parts just doze off for a few seconds. But his momentary lack of attention before approaching a dangerous curve too fast derailed more than just the train; it also ended the lives of four people, injured more than 70 others, and probably cost Rockerfeller his career.
Short sleep, or getting less than 6 hours when 7-9 hours is recommended, drastically dampens our attentiveness and reaction times, as well as our health overall. While I’ll describe the negative effects of Short sleep, this article is really about the positive benefits of Restorative sleep, and it concludes with an excellent speech on the topic by Arianna Huffington. I hope it motivates you to add a New Years’ resolution — get more sleep.
Here’s to Your Health
Even though you may pay more attention to diet, exercise and fitness, sleep can be even more important to your overall health, as well as to your school, work and athletic performance, and your ability to avoid expensive mistakes and accidents. The good news is that taking even small steps to improve sleep habits can have enormous benefits, and that public awareness of the need for sleep is improving.
We spend a third of our lives sleeping but still don’t fully understand why we need sleep. Even sleep scientists disagree on what it’s for. Some say it has to do with healthy cell growth and long-term memory. Some say it’s about the chemical process of producing important hormones and clearing toxins from the brain. And others are trying to reduce the dependency with pharmaceutical drugs. They’re trying to cheat sleep.
Whatever is going on when we sleep, we do know one thing: we’re not getting enough good, restorative sleep. And we’re cheating ourselves by dosing up with caffeine and nicotine to stay awake, or knocking ourselves out with alcohol or sleeping pills. All the while, we’re stopping ourselves from getting the healthy, normal sleep that lets our brains function optimally.
Consider that restorative sleep, and whether we get enough of it, is related to the health of our nation and the $2.7 trillion that we spend on health care each year. Without enough sleep (short sleep), we:
- are 20% more likely to die in 20 years — A 2010 study found that men who slept less than six hours a night were actually four times more likely to die over a 14-year period.
- have 27% higher Obesity risk — Analysis of several studies found that being sleep deprived increases the hunger-stimulating hormone ghrelin, decreases insulin sensitivity (a risk factor for diabetes), and decreases the hormone leptin (key for energy balance and food intake). Here’s motivation: lose over 14 pounds per year by sleeping one hour more per night rather than watching TV.
- are more likely to develop Type 2 Diabetes — Research from the University of Newcastle suggests that your risk of developing type 2 diabetes may increase by 30% if you sleep less than 6 hours a night. That’s consistent with previous studies where volunteers became insulin resistant after several consecutive nights of acute sleep deprivation.
- have 48% higher risk of Heart Disease — Academics from Warwick Medical School have shown that prolonged sleep deprivation can have serious long-term health effects and increased risk of dying from heart attacks, cardiovascular disorders, or stroke, because without enough sleep, the body can produce more of the chemicals and hormones that lead to heart disease and not enough of those that prevent it.
- have 62% higher Breast Cancer risk — Actually, a small but growing body of research suggests a link between poor sleep and several other types of cancer too, including this study of colorectal adenoma.
- are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s — Normal sleep-wake patterns actually help regulate levels of Beta-amyloid, a protein that’s found in the brain. With short sleep, it tends to form into clusters and eventually into plaque that is the telltale sign of Alzheimer’s. A new study in mice finds that brains flush toxic waste during sleep, including beta-amyloid.
- are at higher risk of Osteoporosis — Early research discovered abnormalities in bone metabolism in sleep-deprived rats, leading scientists to believe there’s a link between sleep and osteoporosis.
Asleep at the Wheel
More than half of adults (54%) admitted to driving drowsy at least once during the year, according to a 2009 National Sleep Foundation poll. That’s about 110 million drivers, and nearly one-third said they’ve nodded off or fallen asleep while driving. Ouch!
Looking at the problem of drowsy driving, the National Highway Traffic & Safety Administration tells us that lack of sleep is responsible for about 100,000 car accidents each year, including over 1,550 deaths and $12.5 billion in monetary damages. That’s the equivalent of 387 Metro-North train derailments, or more than one a day, but it may be just the tip of the iceberg.
An Australian study showed that driving drowsy was like driving drunk and sometimes worse. The impairment of being awake 18 hours is like having a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.5, and after 24 hours it’s like 0.10, where 0.08 is considered legally drunk.
That’s why experts have long warned of the dangers of operating any type of vehicle while sleepy, and for those who carry passengers — bus drivers, airline pilots, and train engineers — the risks are enhanced. And it’s why regulators now restrict how much they can work without down time for sleep. But there’s no test to determine sleepiness as there is for intoxication, such as a breathalyzer.
So who’s most at risk? From a 2002 National Sleep Foundation poll:
- Young adults 18-29 are much more likely to drive drowsy, at 71% versus 52% for older drivers 30-64, or 19% for seniors 65+;
- Men drive sleepy more often than women (56% versus 45%);
- Parents with children at home are more at risk (59% versus 45%);
- Shift workers (36% versus 25%); and
- People driving at high speeds on long, boring, rural highways.
This discussion of vehicle accidents and train derailments may get us thinking about some of the other global catastrophes and the need to wake up to the risks of skimping on sleep. Here’s some examples:
Don’t Let a Lack of Sleep Hold You Back
And then there’s the impact on schoolwork, learning and IQ; on athletic performance, reaction times, endurance, and recovery; and on work productivity, decision making, career advancement, and personal relationships. Per CDC, 30% of the workforce is sleep deprived, and Harvard Medical School found that insomnia is costing the US workforce $63.2 Billion a year in lost productivity.
Insomnia is not considered an illness that keeps people home from work, so employers tend to ignore its consequences. But even when employees are physically present, if they’re tired, they accomplish less and are unable to fully perform their duties. Worse is that they’re also more likely to make costly mistakes and poor decisions in the work they do perform. That’s because lack of restorative sleep effects alertness, attention, behavior, creativity, decision making, energy, focus, memory, mood, and patience, among other factors that determine the success of a business or its employees.
The Harvard study examined lost worker productivity in big corporations, but I found nothing to quantify the effect of sleep on an individual basis, over a lifetime. So, I developed a spreadsheet model on my own and was surprised at the results with even my conservative assumptions.
What if I told you that not getting great sleep could easily cost you — some $8 million in lifetime earning capacity?
My Assumptions — The model begins with a $50K/year starting salary out of college. Salary increases as a percent of the base at a faster rate early on but decreases with age and then when Social Security kicks in. Likewise, healthcare costs increase with age. I also looked at Net Worth (car, home and investments) but did not consider factors such as the impact on personal relationships or the potential for divorce due to diminished patience and coping skills.
Teens are Walking Zombies
Our nation’s teens are facing an epidemic of sleep deprivation. The National Sleep Foundation suggests that they should get nine hours and 15 minutes per night, but a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that only 8% of teens get the recommend amount of sleep. Two-thirds sleep less than 7 hours, meaning they’re less attentive in class, less focused on projects, remember less of what they learn, and develop lower IQs. Short sleep also limits their physical growth, brain development, and their developing immune system, as well as causing higher rates of anxiety and depression.
I’m sure we all can remember when short sleep affected our own school performance. For me it was in a college physics class of about 300 people. The professor had a very heavy Indian accent, and I had a hard time understanding him. Getting individual face time was near near impossible, and I struggled to learn from the text. Taking the caffein supplement NoDose was a common practice while cramming for exams, but it actually made things worse. After one all-nighter, I showed up for the exam in body only. The questions made no sense, even after reading them several times. In frustration, I just signed my name and accepted a zero. Needless to say, I failed Physics that semester. It was a costly mistake in GPA, time and tuition, but I learned a hard lesson.
Arianna Huffington’s TED Talk on Sleep
I’ve posted many other articles on Sleep and often tweet about other people’s Sleep articles, so follow me on Twitter @mhealthtalk. I’m also working with Dr. Bruce Meleski, a PhD sleep consultant, to launch a new kind of business in this space and hope and that I’ll be publishing more on this later.
Sleep & Stress Ingfographics
- Sleep Apnea in America
- Sleep is Awesome
- Sleep or Die
- Sleep: 10 Tips for Better Sleep
- Sleep: 16 Things you Didn’t Know about Sleep
- Sleep: an animated infographic
- Sleep: Dos and Don’ts of a Good Night’s Sleep
- Sleep: Healthiest Sleeping Positions
- Sleep: How Did You Sleep Last Night?
- Sleep: How Stress Affects the Body
- Sleep: How to Nap
- Sleep: How Your Job Is KILLING You (stress infographic)
- Sleep: Let’s Talk About Stress
- Sleep: Making sense of Dreams
- Sleep: Napping
- Sleep: The Basics of Sleep
- Sleep: The Dangers of Sleep Deprivation
- Sleep: The Secret to Better Sleep
- Sleep: What is Sleep Apnea?
- Sleep: You Need More Sleep
Online References in order of use: