On Sleep: Why You Need It So Badly, and How You Can Get Some!I’ve noticed several recent studies and articles about the importance of sleep, so I thought it might be helpful to synthesize some of the major findings into simple, usable points. After writing this, I think I’ll definitely be getting a good night’s sleep tonight–if I can stop worrying about all the sleep I’ve lost to date!

Sleep: Why You Need It So Badly

  • Sleep affects your ability to do a good job at work. A study published in The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that people with insomnia or insufficient sleep showed worse productivity, performance, and safety outcomes on the job.
  • Lack of sleep can have serious consequences on and off the job. A study published in JAMA found that surgeons who worked a night shift and got less than 6 hours of sleep had more complications in the surgeries they performed, compared to a control group. Another study showed that sleep-deprived medical residents were more likely to crash their cars and make more mistakes on the job.
  • Poor sleep in kids and teens leads to poor performance in school. Several studies have shown that kids and teens who get up during the night or don’t get enough sleep do worse in school than their sleep-sound schoolmates. They have problems paying attention and higher failure rates on academic tests.
  • Sleep-deprived people don’t realize how impaired they are. Harvard sleep expert Charles Czeisler has been quoted as saying “Like a drunk, a person who is sleep deprived has no idea how functionally impaired he or she truly is. Most of us have forgotten what it really feels like to be awake.”
  • Lack of sleep combined with alcohol is far more dangerous than you think. Says Cornell expert James Maas, “One drink on six hours of sleep, in terms of your ability to drive a car, is the equivalent of six drinks on eight hours, so you never want to get into a car with someone who’s the least bit sleepy and has had any alcohol to drink at all.”
  • Poor sleep can make you fat. People who sleep less are hungrier and consume more calories–perhaps because they’re looking for food to perk them up, perhaps because of impaired cognitive choices. Furthermore, sleep deprivation leads to hormonal changes that make you crave more carbohydrates and make you feel less like exercising.
  • Less sleep equals more depression and suicidal thoughts in teens. A study on parent-mandated bedtimes found that adolescents who went to bed at 10 PM had significantly lower rates of depression and suicidal thoughts versus those who went to bed at midnight.
  • Sleep deprivation might lead to higher blood pressure. An exploratory study found that depriving older adults of one night’s sleep led to higher blood pressure.
  • Beauty sleep is not a myth. A Karolinska Institute study showed that controlling for other factors, people were considered to be less attractive and less healthy after sleep deprivation than when they had gotten a full night’s sleep.
  • Lack of sleep can’t be repaired in just one night. Many people believe that one good night’s sleep is sufficient to make up for previous poor sleep, but research has found that chronic sleep loss has residual negative effects, particularly when sleep is lost during the Circadian “night.”
  • Lack of sleep can literally kill you. People who sleep fewer than six hours a night are 12% more likely to die prematurely than people who sleep between six and eight hours. Another study showed that an average of 7 hours a night for older women was correlated with the best chance of longevity.

Sleep: How to Get It

  • Dim the lights well before bedtime. Harvard’s Charles Czeisler has found that exposure to bright light before bedtime suppresses the melatonin response, and may impair your ability to get to sleep.
  • Warm feet in a cold room is ideal. The ideal ambient temperature for sleep promotion is a little colder than you might think–between 60 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit. People who sleep well exhibit a drop in core temperature and an increase in dilation in the extremities, so troubled sleepers can try a hot water bottle at the feet, while sleeping in a room that’s kept in the low 60s, to reset the “internal thermostat” and help the body fall asleep.
  • Watch your fat intake. A recent study in Sleep Med showed that of 15 nutrients tracked, fat intake had the highest correlation to poor sleep. The study showed that the more fat a woman ate, the more trouble she had sleeping.
  • Get out of bed if you can’t sleep. It may sound counter-intuitive, but sleep experts like John Winkleman have found that tossing and turning in bed will make you associate your insomnia-related frustrations with the bed. Winkleman has been quoted as saying, “The bed is for two things,” he said, “if you’re lucky.”
  • Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day. In this interview with Cornell sleep expert James Maas, he highlights a study comparing people with different sleep patterns. He notes that if you compare 2 groups that get the same amount of sleep, with one group going to bed at vastly different times each night (say, 11 PM one night and 3 AM the next) and the second group going to sleep at the same time each night, the second group will be “significantly more alert.”
  • You booze, you lose. Alcohol is a depressant, but also activates the sympathetic nervous system in a way that can disrupt sleep. Although wine contains melatonin, it also has the stimulant amino acid tyrosine in it, and can inhibit REM sleep.
  • Don’t be too quick to take sleep drugs–especially if you’re older. A meta-review of 24 studies found that while sleep drugs may help, the effect is small and there are risks involved, particularly for people over 60, who may experience cognitive decline or increased likelihood of falling related to the drugs.

Some Additional Findings and Discussions About Sleep

  • Good sleep can improve performance. In a study of professional violinists, Anders Ericsson found that after practicing, sleep was the most important factor in improving.
  • Sleep helps you consolidate memories and can increase creative thinking. Research has found that a good night’s sleep is key for organizing, consolidating, and focusing memories, and can make you a more creative thinker.
  • Old beats young when it comes to functioning with less sleep. A study found that healthy older adults tolerate sleep deprivation much better than younger adults.
  • Sleep-deprived employees can cost employers money. The JOEM study also showed that productivity losses related to poor sleep were estimated to cost almost $2000 per employee per year.
  • Sleep changes the way you see the world around you. Sleep is necessary to restore the equilibrium of our color vision.
  • Santa Claus may want to re-think the all-nighter. In this fun article from Science Daily, sleep experts discuss the consequences of, and some strategies for, Santa’s all-night ride each Christmas Eve.