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Sleep- You Probably aren’t Getting Enough

Updated on May 13, 2007

Although many factors influence how much sleep you really need, the common recommendation is eight hours a night. But individual needs vary greatly.

Sleep Deprivation and Your Health

"Poll results show that while many Americans enjoy the benefits of sufficient sleep, as many as 47 million adults may be putting themselves at risk for injury, health and behavior problems because they aren't meeting their minimum sleep need in order to be fully alert the next day."

The 2002 National Sleep Awareness Week this year emphasizes dangers such as drowsy driving, stress, anger and road rage. But the dangers of sleep deprivation go far beyond these visible risks. Sleep deprivation can, in fact, undermine all areas of your physical and mental health.

Sleep deprivation weakens the immune system leaving us more susceptible to other diseases and disorders like diabetes, cancer and even the common cold. It is not uncommon for people who suffer from sleep deprivation due to sleep disorders - sleep apnea, narcolepsy, insomnia, etc. - to also suffer from other problems including diabetes, asthma or a second sleep disorder.

Sleep deprivation also causes much stress and, again, stress weakens our immune system - a double whammy. And both of these things, sleep deprivation and stress, can upset your mental processes. You may suffer from confusion, memory loss, irritability or emotional highs and lows. If you already have a mental disorder, sleep deprivation only adds to the problem.

Many elderly people suffer from insomnia and other sleep disorders. For the elderly, sleep deprivation can be even more dangerous. Sleepy people are less focused on what they are doing or where they are going, and this could lead to falls or even to becoming lost on an unfamiliar street. Of course, added to other problems of the elderly, Alzheimer's, dementia, or even memory losses, and you have a real problem.

So, if you want to stay healthy, be sure you get the sleep you need. If it means a change in lifestyle like cutting out some of your activities or altering sleep habits, remember, if you don't have your health, you probably won't be participating in these activities anyway. If your lack of sleep comes from a sleep disorder, or even if you suspect you may have a sleep disorder, talk to your doctor and ask if he thinks you should have a sleep study done.


How Much Sleep Do You Really Need?

Although many factors influence how much sleep you really need, most adults report sleeping about seven and a half hours on weekday nights and eight and a half hours on weekend nights. And the common recommendation is eight hours a night. But individual needs vary greatly. There are so-called short-sleepers and long-sleepers - those who need as little as five and a half hours to as much as about nine and a half hours.

How much sleep you require depends on several factors including:

  • Your inherited genetic need
  • Your sleep hygiene (those daily activities you control, from drinking coffee or alcohol to smoking and exercise)
  • The quality of your sleep
  • Your 24-hour daily cycle known as the circadian rhythm

For example, smoking, drinking, and exercise can affect your sleep dramatically. What you actually do in bed (like reading or watching TV) and how much exposure to light you have (looking at that bright computer screen 'til midnight) will also significantly alter both the quality and quantity of your sleep. They all interact to determine how long you need to sleep to wake up feeling refreshed and remain alert throughout the day.

Eight Hours?

How did we get the age-old recommendation that we need a solid eight hours of sleep? In a classic study, researchers placed a volunteer in windowless, light-controlled room for 30 days. The light was on for 16 hours and off for eight hours, but the study participant could also turn the lights on and off at will.

Before the experiment began, the subject routinely got about six and a half hours of sleep. During the first night of the experiment he slept eight hours, the second night 10 hours, the third night 12 hours, and the fourth night 14 hours. Over the next several days, he began to reduce the number of hours slept, eventually falling to a steady eight hours and 13 minutes. This experiment was performed repeatedly with all types of people, with similar results, and this is where the recommendation of eight hours comes from.

Your Sleep Debt

OK, so how do you determine how much sleep you really need? First, let's look at your sleep account and see if you have a debt to pay. Throughout the day, you take out about eight hours from this account, generating a sleep debt. Over the course of the night, as you snooze, you replenish your account. If you sleep only, say, six and a half hours, you still owe one and a half hours. If you do this for five nights in a row, you have lost an entire night's sleep! You will then need extra sleep over the next few days to replenish your sleep debt.

Not getting the proper amount of and the best quality sleep may have serious consequences. Many studies have shown that sleep deprivation adversely affects performance and alertness. Reducing sleep by as little as one and a half hours for just one night reduces daytime alertness by about one-third. Excessive daytime sleepiness impairs memory and the ability to think and process information, and contributes to a substantially increased risk of sustaining an occupational injury.

The bottom line is that you should wake up feeling relatively refreshed, and you should generally not feel sleepy during the day. If this is not the case, you may have an unrecognized sleep disorder and should see your doctor or a sleep specialist.


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