Maybe you missed a few hours of sleep last night. Come to think of it, you didn’t get to bed on time Monday night either. You feel okay. What’s the harm?
Plenty. Missing some sleep could be as bad as getting no sleep, says a new study from the University of Pennsylvania appearing in the journal Sleep. Researchers found that many people who are living on less than the standard eight hours may not be aware how tired they are or how the shortfall is affecting their brains. “The assumption is that your body will adapt and live with less sleep,” says Hans P. A. Van Dongen, Ph.D., assistant professor of sleep chronobiology at the Psychiatric School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and lead investigator of the study funded by the National Institute of Nursing Research of the National Institutes of Health.
However, that is not the case.
Researchers found people in the study who slept four to six hours a night for 14 consecutive nights reacted more slowly than they would have on eight hours. This performance was equivalent to people who did not sleep at all for two nights. Yet these people said they did not feel tired.
And that is where trouble begins.
“People who need to perform certain functions in their jobs may reduce their speed to maintain accuracy,” Van Dongen says. “A worker on an assembly line may take a little extra time. If you are writing, you might do extra proofreading. It’s such an automatic process that the brain does. Most of the time, we are not even aware of this. The brain just naturally does this.”
Usually, this isn’t much of a problem, Van Dongen says, the few extra minutes here and there. But you could be in big trouble when you have to think fast.
“In a car, you see lights, things coming at you, cars turning. In a car, the brain cannot do these tricks anymore,” he says.
It’s not just driving, points out Joyce Walsleben, Ph.D., R.N., research associate professor of medicine at New York University’s School of Medicine and diplomate of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
“It’s the people in critical roles like the military, like health care workers who work night shifts. It’s anything that is very critical and requires quick judgments where you are going to see a problem. It’s the things that require more from you but you have less to give,” she says, lauding the study as important in the field of sleep research.
“The sense of feeling good is not a good measure,” she says. Adults need 8.16 hours during a 24-hour cycle, according to this research, although the study also showed that this number can vary from one person to another.
The study looked at 48 healthy adults ages 21 to 38. This is a group commonly associated with sleep deprivation because of demands such as raising children and working long hours. The researchers say more work needs to be done looking at other age groups.
Van Dongen says we may have turned off our sense of sleepiness because of our daily routines and the ways we work to help stifle the sense of tiredness that the body is sending to the brain. Caffeine, the long commutes, the frantic activities of shuttling the kids to the doctor – all things cloud your ability to tell just how tired you are.
It’s a catch-22, Van Dongen says. By stealing time from sleep to have enough time during the day, we are actually losing time because of the impaired brain functioning.
“People should be aware that sleep is not a waste of time and realize sleep is actually valuable,” he says.
Lack of sleep doesn’t only affect your ability to perform throughout the day. It could also lead to physical problems, such as:
* Obesity: Sleep plays a role in the body’s ability to secrete neurohormones. As the amount of hormone secretion decreases, the chance for weight gain increases.
* Blood pressure: Your blood pressure naturally goes down during your sleep. But lack of sleep interrupts this cycle, potentially leading to hypertension and cardiovascular problems.
* Diabetes: The body’s ability to use insulin could be impaired, possibly leading to diabetes. As many as 47 million adults may not be getting the minimum amount of sleep they need at night, according to a National Sleep Foundation (NSF) 2002 poll. People reported 6.9 hours weeknights and 7.5 hours during weekends.
At least 30 percent of people surveyed got less than seven hours on weeknights and two-thirds get less than eight hours of sleep on a weekend night.
At least 58 percent of American adults had at least one symptom of insomnia in 2002, according to NSF. Insomnia includes waking too early, having trouble falling asleep and waking throughout the night.
Chronic insomnia could indicate a disorder such as sleep apnea or mental illness such as depression. Most people, even the elderly, need between seven to eight hours, NSF says. There is no evidence that the body’s need for sleep diminishes with age.
Insomnia means you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, or you wake too early. You wake feeling un-refreshed and you feel tired during the day.
For some people, insomnia lasts a night or two. For others, it tortures them for months or even years. Doctors used to think of insomnia only as a symptom of a disease such as depression or anxiety or a result of chronic pain. However, research shows it may be a condition by itself.
Insomnia might also be related to lifestyle. Do you go to bed too late? Do you exercise too close to bedtime? Do you drink caffeinated coffee after dinner? Insomnia is a serious problem for millions of Americans.
More than half of adults in the United States have insomnia a few nights a week or more, according to the National Sleep Foundation. That’s troubling because sleep is one of the most basic of human needs and one of the most crucial. If you don’t sleep well or get enough sleep, your quality of life suffers.
Lack of sleep affects how well you do your job, how quickly your mind works and possibly even your weight and how well your immune system fights disease. Plus, drowsy drivers are a hazard. Yet many people suffer for months or even years before getting help. Not everyone needs the same amount of sleep. Some need eight hours while others need less. So, it’s up to you to decide if you aren’t getting enough or not sleeping well.
Insomnia is usually treatable whether it is a symptom of a disease or a condition itself. Getting treatment for an underlying condition, lifestyle changes and medication may help. The News