Eight hours a day keeps the doctor away . . . in an ideal world. We know medical research tells us to get more sleep, but for a society on a perma-drip of caffeine and chaos, it’s easier preached than practiced. In fact, over a third of U.S. adults are considered sleep deprived, over 60 million suffer from insomnia, and over 16 million receive prescriptions for sleeping pills, according to the National Commission on Sleep Disorders Research. These statistics render sleep deprivation one of society’s most detrimental epidemics.

For most of us, the consensus is “no biggie.” You’ll catch an extra forty winks this weekend, right?

Not so fast, Sandman.

“Anyone who thinks they can do without adequate sleep shows the obvious signs of their choices,” says performance-therapist and medical researcher Robert Rudelic.  “The myth that you can catch up on sleep has been debunked over and over as well. The toll sleep deprivation takes on people is now considered torture and yet many people choose to do this to themselves thinking they can cheat genetics or catch up later. They can’t!”

In fact, the issue is so dire that cognitive neuroscientist Robert Stickgold is equating our ‘Z’-deficiency to an eating disorder. Sleep bulimics is how he describes this culture of individuals who purge on sleep during the weekdays and binge on the weekends.  Does it all even out in the end, or will our deprivation ultimately lead to serious health concerns?

While one can make up for acute sleep deprivation (say, a late night here and there) researchers are now warning about the possibility of a cumulative sleep deficit, which cannot be compensated for with a few more hours of pillow indulgence. Individuals who habitually burn the midnight oil are at risk for the effects of chronic sleep deprivation, which can seriously affect one’s health. The function of sleep, after all, is to allow the body an opportunity to regenerate and regain homeostasis. If it is deprived this time of healing, the immune system weakens and neurological functions slow.

According to Rudelic, sleep deprivation can lead to a laundry list of short-term and long-term effects. In the short-term, the individual may experience quick temper, edginess, pessimism, bad attitude, lack of focus, poor eating choices, and higher risk of getting sick or of getting into an accident. Long-term effects may be as severe as diabetes, cancer, obesity, heart disease, depression and anxiety, stroke, and even premature death.

Apparently, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” is an eerily apt statement. Sleep studies conducted with rats have shown that when they are completely deprived of sleep, they die within 17-20 days. They started losing their hair and became hypermetabolic, meaning they burned calories even while standing still.
While humans are not rats, they are similarly affected by sleep deprivation. Humans are not nocturnal animals; they are designed to sleep and rise with the sun.  According to Rudelic, we are designed to spend a third of our lives sleeping. It is biologically unnatural for us to go without, or even with less. But enter an age of lights and electronics, and we have created a disorienting environment in which time of day is largely irrelevant.

Similar to the comparison between sleep deprivation and an eating disorder, Dr. Stickgold also theorizes that sleep deprivation is a major contributor to obesity. “During nights of sleep deprivation, you feel that your eating goes wacky,” he says in an interview with Harvard Magazine. “Up at 2 a.m., working on a paper, a steak or pasta is not very attractive. You’ll grab the candy bar instead. It probably has to do with the glucose regulation going off. It could be that a good chunk of our epidemic of obesity is actually an epidemic of sleep deprivation.”

Rudelic sees the issue having an even broader impact on society. The cost of the slumber shortage is financial as well as physical. “Sleep deprivation costs the US over 16 billion dollars in Medical costs and is the single fastest area of growth in our medical care,” he says, citing statistics compiled by the U.S. Labor Department. “[It also] costs the US economy over 50 billion dollars in lost productivity.”

So here we are, a nation of sleep-deprived individuals trying to rewrite our biological inclinations for the sake of a few more waking hours. Or we are simply at a lost for how to make our sleep patterns adapt to our busy, stressful lives.  Thankfully, counting sheep is not your only option.  Rudelic suggests nine key tips for ensuring a better night’s sleep.

  1. First, take sleep seriously and plan for it. This starts from the time you wake up! What you do during the day affects your ability to get a good night’s sleep.
  2. Sleep environment is crucial. Sleep in a dark, cool room. Consider using an eye mask and get the electronics out of the room!
  3. Block the view of your clock so you can’t check what time it is (don’t worry, the alarm will still go off).
  4. Develop a sleep routine such as going to bed at the same time, rituals such as having a cup of relaxing tea, reading, taking a candle-lit bath and drying off with warm fluffy towels.
  5. Avoid eating heavy late night meals.
  6. Go to sleep and get up at approximately the same time every day.
  7. EXERCISE – it lowers the stress hormone cortisol and helps release physical tension.
  8. If worries are keeping you awake, try PowerTapping. It will provide a way for you to “release” the worry and therefore relax and fall sleep.
  9. Use an all-natural sleep formula with that contains L-Theanine and 5HTP and avoid pharmaceutical sleep medications; they do more damage than good.

If these suggestions do not seem to work at first, don’t throw in the towel. For so many of us who have failed to make sleep a priority, it may take time to reestablish healthy sleeping habits. The objective is to change the way our culture views sleep; it is important for us to regard it as a necessary ingredient to a healthy, productive lifestyle. Like proper nutrition, sleep gives us the stamina we need to function, to heal, and to perform at our best. An extra cup of coffee is no stand-in for an extra hour of shut-eye . . . rest assured!

Cited Sources

Rudelic, Robert. “Sleep Answers.” Message to Kim Walleston. 15 05 2012. E-mail.

Lambert, Craig. “Deep Into Sleep .” Harvard Magazine. 07 2005: n. page. Web. 18 May. 2012. <https://harvardmagazine.com/2005/07/deep-into-sleep.html>.

Koben, PhD, Michael. “Sleep Deprivation of Rats: The Hyperphagic Response Is Real.” Sleep. 31.7 (2008): 927-933. Print. <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2491509/>.

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Author Paul Sapiano

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