Thursday, November 4, 2010

Another Late Night....

How sleep deprivation is becoming all too common, and why you should be worried about it.

As I sit here writing this I noticed that I've been awake for a very long time. To properly estimate I don't think I got more than five hours of sleep last night, or the previous night for that matter. But have you ever wondered about how much you sleep? It's a necessity for proper functioning, but it seems that more and more people in today's society are not getting enough sleep, and it may seriously be impacting their health and performance.

Several studies done on the relation between sleep and health / cognitive performance have been done and the results are not so encouraging. A study performed by Rechtschaffen et al studied the effects of forced sleep deprivation on lab rats, with quite shocking results. Rats being chronically sleep deprived suffered from weight loss, increased food intake, skin lesions and a debilitated appearance, and in extremely sleep deprived rats, hormonal fluctuations and death resulted. These are for extreme cases in non-human animals, but what about cases involving people?

Van Dongen et al performed an interesting study that was more closely related to most peoples' sleeping habits. They tested 48 healthy adults of various ages by allowing them to sleep eight hours per night, six hours, and four hours for a fourteen day period, at which point they also tested zero hours of sleep for a period of three consecutive days. What they found was that even at low levels of sleep deprivation (sleep limited to only six or four hours per night), significant deficits were observed. The test subjects had trouble with addition and subtraction, basic movement, and memory by the six hours-per-night cycle.

For the four hours-per-night cycle, the patients' working memory was almost equivalent to having not slept for two consecutive nights. These deficits were also apparent throughout the working day. The real kicker is that even after fourteen days of being chronically sleep deprived, none of the study subjects reported feeling exceptionally sleepy. Another interesting thing to note was that this drop in performance didn't come from not getting enough sleep, but from staying awake too much. Your body seems to need adequate rest from performing its multitude of metabolic functions, it gets this through shutting down periodically.

The interesting thing about sleep is that we're so unaware of it in our busy society that we forget how important it is. Despite a common forty-hour work week, ask yourself how many times have you actually worked forty hours a week this past month? How often have you felt really sleepy behind the wheel driving home? We really work a lot longer than we should, and because of increased demands from work, family, school, and a poor economy, it doesn't seem to be getting better anytime soon. Perhaps this is something we all need to take some time to properly evaluate: are we getting enough sleep? It could mean the difference between life and death. As I sit here again, it's 2:45 am and I've still yet to fall asleep...This is going to be tricky.

Rechtschaffen A, et al (1989).Sleep Deprivation in the rat: X. Integration and discussion of the findings. Sleep; 12(1):68-87.

Van Dongen, HPA, et al (2003).The cumulative cost of additional wakefulness: dose-response effects on neurobehav...Sleep;26(2):117-123.

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