Okay, I admit it: I’m a sleep slacker. Ever since I became a mother, I’ve worn my fatigue like a badge of honor. Why waste time on a full night’s sleep when I can go to the supermarket at 3:00 A.M., or work into the wee hours, surfing the Net on a laptop from my sofa?
And I’ve got plenty of bleary-eyed company: About 65 percent of American adults don’t catch enough zzz’s most nights, according to National Sleep Foundation statistics.
That’s a big mistake. Eye-opening research shows that skimping on slumber doesn’t just give us black circles under our eyes. It dampens our mood, memory, and ability to concentrate and make decisions, and it sends our stress levels skyrocketing.
“As a society, we’re chronically sleep-deprived,” says Sonia Ancoli-Israel, Ph.D., a sleep researcher at the University of California at San Diego and author of All I Want Is a Good Night’s Sleep. It gets worse when you look at the fact that many of us snore or have obstructive sleep apnea. Snoring issues, of course, can be cured by stop snoring mouthpieces.
Here, the nitty-gritty on what lack of sleep really does to you:
1. Even one night of inadequate sleep is enough to elevate stress hormones.
When University of Chicago sleep researcher Eve Van Cauter took around-the-clock blood samples of volunteers while they were awake and asleep, she discovered that those who slept too little had higher blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
2. Your energy as well as basic mental and physical skills declines sharply.
A comparison of dozens of published studies on sleep deprivation by psychologists June Pilcher, Ph.D., and Allen Huffcutt, Ph.D., of Bradley University in Peoria, IL, found that both mental and physical performance were diminished by lack of sleep. The average sleep-deprived person scored worse on cognitive skill tests than nearly all those who had slept enough. And, the sleep-deprived score worse on motor skills tests than 80 percent of well-rested people, suggesting that driving ability would be impaired by lack of sleep.
3. Grabbing just a few hours of sleep may be worse for you than staying awake all night
Pilcher and Huffcutt compared the results of mental and physical tests completed by volunteers who were kept awake for 48 hours with those who were awakened every few hours–much the way new mothers are. They were surprised to find that people who went without sleep altogether did better on the tests than those who slept a little intermittently.
Pilcher speculates that being forced to stay awake for hours on end may push the body into a crisis mode that allows it to adjust, temporarily, to its sleepless state. In contrast, repeatedly interrupting sleep may send signals that confuse the biological clock, creating a more serious sleep debt.
4. Night owls may get frustrated while trying to learn something new.
A recent study from Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, concluded that inadequate, irregular sleep severely impairs the learning process, cutting the amount of new information that your brain processes by as much as half. “Say you learn to do a new task, and then that night you don’t go to bed on time,” says researcher Carlyle Smith, Ph.D. “You say to yourself, `I’ll rest up the next day or over the weekend.’ By then it’ll be too late! You’ll have already lost between 20 percent and 50 percent of everything you learned that day.”
5. Without a good night’s sleep, your dreams can’t help you cope.
A healthy dream pattern includes negative dreams at the beginning of the night and fewer of them toward morning. “Dreaming is a mood-regulatory process that helps you get rid of anger and other emotional issues,” explains Rosalind Cartwright, Ph.D., director of the Sleep Disorder Service and Research Center at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago. Without a full night’s sleep, you’re more likely to awaken after a negative dream, “which puts you in a bad mood and colors your whole day,” Cartwright says.
Research at the center underscored this point. In the study of volunteers who were depressed following a difficult event (divorce or marital separation, for example), the ones who were unable to develop healthy dream patterns over the course of a year failed to overcome their depression.
6. Getting too little sleep can make you think you’re depressed when you’re not.
When people are sleepy, they’re often misdiagnosed as being depressed because many of the symptoms –“irritability, difficulty concentrating, mood swings, and lack of energy”–overlap, says Meir Kryger, M.D., past president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “They may end up for years and years on antidepressants, being treated for a disease they don’t actually have.”
Eight hours is still recommended by sleep experts, but the amount of Sleep needed to feel wide awake and alert varies substantially among adults, from as little as six hours to nine or even ten hours per night. Contrary to popular belief, the need for sleep does not decline with age. “It’s the ability to sleep that changes,” notes Ancoli-Israel. “If you look at very healthy older people, their sleep patterns are the same as they were decades earlier. But medical problems that older people are more prone to, such as urinary frequency, often interfere with sleep.”
Dr. Kryger emphasizes that “everybody has a bad night now and then, and that’s no cause to worry. But you do need to find a way to get the sleep you need.”
Steps to Solid, Satisfying Slumber
Set aside time to worry. “With our busy schedules, often the first chance in a day we have to think is when we get in bed–and that’s the wrong time,” says sleep researcher Sonia Ancoli-Israel, Ph.D. “Your mind will start racing, and you’ll never get to sleep.” Instead, she suggests, set aside ten or 20 minutes earlier in the day to rehash the day’s events and make a list of what you need to do tomorrow.
Count breaths. “Every time your mind wanders off, bring it back to your breathing and start counting again from one,” she says. “When you focus on your breathing, you avoid ruminating on things that will keep you awake.”
Use a night light. Don’t turn on any bright lights if you wake up during the night, says Ancoli-Israel. Even brief exposure will cause your body to think it’s time to get up, disrupting your normal sleep cycle. If you can’t resist reading in bed, reach for something simple. “When it’s too interesting or suspenseful, you fight with yourself to stay awake and keep reading,” Ancoli-Israel explains.
Nix the nightcap. Mention you’re having trouble sleeping and someone’s bound to suggest you pour yourself a bit of brandy or other alcoholic drink before bed. “Don’t,” advises Ancoli-Israel. “Alcohol can help you fall asleep faster, but several hours later when the effect wears off, it starts disrupting your sleep, increasing your wakefulness during the second half of the night.”
Savor a snack. Hunger can be another sleep disrupter, but so can a full stomach. Keep your snack small and avoid chocolate (too much caffeine) and fatty foods (too difficult to digest).
Pencil-in some afternoon exercise. Researchers suggest that people who exercise regularly, even as little as four brisk 40-minute walks per week, fall asleep faster, and spend less time awake during the night than people who don’t exercise. To reap the benefit, however, it’s essential not to exercise within three hours of bedtime to avoid revving up your mind and body.
Take a very warm bath. Soak in a hot tub before shutting your eyes. According to one study, this strategy works for reasons that go beyond the fact that the bath is soothing. Researchers found that the temperature of the water plays a key role. When women who suffered from insomnia took hot baths before going to bed, they spent less time awake during the night than did women who bathed in lukewarm water.