Sleep is odd, if you think about it.
George Carlin, in his book Brain Droppings, said, “People say, ‘I’m going to sleep now,’ as if it were nothing. But it’s really a bizarre activity. ‘For the next several hours, while the sun is gone, I’m going to become unconscious, temporarily losing command over everything I know and understand. When the sun returns, I will resume my life. If you didn’t know what sleep was, and you had only seen it in a science fiction movie, you would think it was weird and tell all your friends about the movie you’d seen.”
Sleep is odd, but we need it. Adults generally need about seven to nine hours per day. It seems like a waste of time to some people — but we suffer without it, for sure.
What happens to us when we don’t get enough sleep?
- Our attention and working memory suffer: We lose our ability to pay attention to detail, sometimes critical details. Working memory concerns our ability to function and make decisions from moment to moment. Working memory allows you to be told a phone number, and then use it just a moment later. Impaired working memory may cause you to skip a step in a procedure, or leave out numbers in a string of information. It may cause lapses in communication. It is these cognitive effects that can lead to accidents and mishaps. Many injuries and deaths are caused by sleep deprivation. Many car accidents (estimates range from 100,000 to 250,000 per year) are related to sleep deprivation.
- Depression: This is a chicken or egg situation, as insomnia can make depression worsen or become more likely, and depression often causes insomnia. Developing better sleep habits can be part of the treatment for those who are depressed.
- Aging: When you are sleep deprived, your body releases a stress-related hormone called cortisol. Cortisol can break down skin collagen, which can make the area around your eyes “hollow out” and make wrinkles appear sooner.
- Weight gain: Sleep deprivation often causes an increase in hunger and appetite. People who are chronically sleep deprived are also more likely to be obese.
- You could die: Literally — you can only live so long without sleep. Lab animals, like rats, have died when they were prevented from sleeping. You would experience psychosis (thoughts that are disconnected from reality) and hallucinations long before you died from sleep deprivation. In the long term, chronic sleep deprivation doubles your risk of death from all causes. The world record for sleep deprivation by a human is approximately 11 days. Don’t try that at home!
- You never really “adapt,” even if you think you do: When people are generally getting enough sleep and simply have had a bad night, they are usually aware of their impaired functioning the next day. But some people are chronically sleep deprived. This becomes a new normal for them, and they begin to feel less miserable with the condition. This causes them to believe that they can handle being sleep deprived when, in reality, their abilities are severely impaired. They underestimate how impaired they are. Also, they often “micro-sleep.” This is when people fall asleep involuntarily for a few seconds at a time. Chronically sleep-deprived people can micro-sleep without knowing it. Being sleep deprived is not a badge of honor! Get your sleep!
Sleep deprivation has powerful effects on your performance in the day(s) that follow. Chronic sleep deprivation has many long-term effects that are worth avoiding. So it’s wise to make sleep a higher priority. What can you do if you are sleep deprived? The UPMC MyHealth Matters blog has a few posts about how to get better sleep at the following links: