Disturbing Facts about Sleep Deprivation Everyone Should Know
You Can Die from Lack of Sleep
It's true. If you don't sleep you will eventually die. We know this because we have been studying sleep for years in an attempt to figure out what it is and why we need it. We've been successful in getting some answers but as a whole we're still pretty clueless. Sleep studies may have started when researchers decided to see if it was even necessary. They took lab rats and technicians took turns forcing the rats to stay awake. Within three weeks these healthy animals had their health decline so bad that they died.
Here's where things get interesting. We know the rats died and it was because of lack of sleep but we still don't know why the lack of sleep was a problem. We do however know what it did. These rats suffered in stages, much as a human would. By the end stage their immune systems were completely shot, their hearts were weak, their bodies showed great stress with loss of fur and sores, and they were at great risk of infection.
It is hard to say what happens to humans who suffer the same profound lack of sleep. Human studies have been done but not to that extreme. No one wants to kill their participants. That being said there is a very rare condition that happens naturally in humans that could provide answers. It is called Fatal Familial Insomnia. It generally strikes people after their peak childbearing years and starts as mild insomnia, progressing to complete insomnia over time. The man it was first identified in, Micheal Corke, was a music teacher in the 1990s. His doctors tried every sort of sleeping pill but to no avail. He remained awake and after six months without so much as a nap he died.
Sleep Deprivation Damages the Brain
One organ that is particularly vulnerable to sleep deprivation is the brain. Without sleep it starts to function erratically. Verbal skills go down the drain, fine motor movement can be effected, people get clumsy, and exercise poor judgement skills. Even worse it affects mood and can fling people into irritated states and foster depression. Our alertness declines drastically as does our ability to remember things and problem solve. We're also prone to making mistakes when we're in this fog. Medical students who get less than four hours of sleep a night have been shown to make twice the amount of mistakes as well rested residents. This isn't very comforting, particularly knowing nurses, ER staff, and surgeons often have to pull longer and longer shifts due to shortages of personnel in their field. Even more disturbing is the effects on the average individual. Being fatigued can have worse effects than being drunk. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine has reported that up to 80,000 drivers in the US fall asleep behind the wheel every day. This results in 250,000 accidents - a full one in four of all accidents are reported to have "driver fatigue" involved. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) claims, rather conservatively, that at least 1,550 deaths a year are caused by sleepy drivers. Just think about that - even if you've never drank and drove in your life you still could be a danger to our highways or even your fellow workers. Workplace accidents show great increases when sleep deprivation is involved.
Sleep Deprivation is Really Straining on Your Heart
In the US we are facing an epidemic of obesity which has its roots in many things - the cheapness and availability of junk food, our increasingly sedentary life styles, and our lack of sleep. When the body doesn't get enough sleep it releases different hormones than it would if it were well rested. These hormones will make people crave carb-heavy foods and larger amounts than they really need. To make this issue all the worse the body is much less effective at properly processing these foods when it is fatigued. In short it turns into the fat that you carry on your body. Of course obesity is the main catalyst for things like Diabetes and many heart diseases as well as high blood pressure.
Your heart was not made to haul around an additional 100 or more pounds of fat on you. It often grows enlarged trying to deal with this and that's not a good thing. Sleep deprivation has been linked to high blood pressure, anxiety disorders, heart attacks, stroke, and even heart failure. The numbers are alarming.
Sleep Deprivation is not Good for People Around You
Up to 70 million US residents may be affected by sleep disorders. That's not a small number and these people have additional challenges. With sleep deprivation making them moody and often quick tempered they can create a hostile work environment. At home things aren't much better. Sleep disorders can cause immense damage to relationships, particularly if a couple has to sleep apart from each other. Even baby can't get away from the damaging effects of mom's lack of sleep. Fetuses in the womb can suffer growth retardation which can follow them well into childhood. Sadly all these additional worries can increase anxiety which makes sleep all the harder to obtain.
What to do...
If you suffer from a sleep disorder please consider going to a doctor and being officially diagnosed and treated. The field has grown in leaps and bounds in the past twenty years and we have much more effective ways of managing these things than we used to.
Besides the medical aspects of it there are a few easy things you can do.
1) Sleep on a schedule if you can. This doesn't just include sleep but a slot of time before bed where you can just relax, unwind, and get prepared to sleep.
2) Allow yourself enough time to sleep. The average person needs between 6-8 hours of sleep a night but some of us require up to twelve hours. This can be intensely frustrating (I know - ever since I caught mono as a teenager I go through periodic bouts where I absolutely need this much sleep!) Even so please learn how to manage it.
3) If you have to drive and you are sleepy please pull over and take a little power nap. 15-20 minutes of shut eye could save a life and it's far more healthier than putting the additional strain on your heart by drinking energy drinks and the like!
4) No caffeine, energy drinks, or high sugar foods before bed. It very well may disrupt your ability to get to sleep or stay asleep.
5) Make sure your sleep environment is dark and quiet. People who wake up continuously through the night due to noise or other intrusive factors put an immense strain on their heart and heighten their risk of stroke, high blood pressure, and anxiety disorders.
6) There's nothing wrong with naps! Traditionally before the advent of the industrial revolution people slept two or three times a day instead of all in one stretch. If this works better for you than by all means, a nap is a good thing. Even Einstein had daily naps!