What are the dangers of not getting enough sleep?
You may think that eight hours of sleep seems like a monumental waste of time, given how busy we all are. In the twenty-first century, we live hectic lives, combining demanding work and home schedules, while simultaneously struggling to find space and time for friends, family, and leisure pursuits. It is therefore no wonder that many people work late into the night, or are up at the crack of dawn to visit the gym, at a time when you might reasonably expect to find the world asleep.
Sleeping makes us vulnerable too. You’ll know how deeply unconscious we can become if you’ve ever slept through a storm or the alarm. In the prehistoric era, this would have placed our ancestors at risk, and yet, we are evolutionarily programmed to sleep for between 6 and 11 hours at a time.
The advent of technology has led to a disruption of our sleeping habits. Before electricity, people tended to ease down as it became dark, and work during the daylight hours. The lightbulb means we can work late into the night, and electronic devices can fool our brains into thinking it is still daytime. This disrupts our natural rhythms, but also leads to poorer quality sleep. Professor Charles Czeisler of Harvard Medical School has found that those who read electronic books before they go to bed take longer to get to sleep, have reduced levels of melatonin (the hormone that regulates the body's internal body clock), and are less alert in the morning.
Shift workers face the most disruption. The US Centre for Disease Control claim that nearly half of all US shift workers sleep for fewer than six hours a night.
The importance of sleep
While scientists don't fully comprehend sleep, and its importance, it is largely understood to be an anabolic, or building, process, which restores the body’s energy supplies and repairs physical and emotional fatigue that have been exhausted during the day.
Don’t assume that when we sleep, the mind and body shuts down. This is far from the case. When we sleep the mind and body are extraordinarily active. We do a huge amount of important processing, restoration, and strengthening occurs. It is not known exactly how this happens or why we have to sleep for such a long period of time, but scientists know sleep is needed for optimal health and wellbeing.
What are the dangers of not getting enough sleep?
Sleep helps us to solidify and consolidate memories. All the information that we take in during the day are processed while we sleep. Many memories are transferred from the short-term memory to the long-term memory, consolidating them so that they are easily remembered in the future. In addition, the brain clears itself of waste, or the things it thinks it doesn’t need to know. This is rather like cleaning the cache on your computer.
2. Physical fitness
The body needs long periods of sleep in order to restore and rejuvenate, to grow muscle, repair tissue, and synthesize hormones.
Sleep restores our mental energy. Having spent all day thinking, worrying and creating, we use up our energy stores, and they need to be restored.
Sleep deprivation affects our coordination. We become clumsier and make more mistakes. We lose our ability to do things with agility. If we get enough sleep, muscle tone and skin appearance improves. Without it we are sallow complexioned. With adequate sleep athletes run better, swim better and are able to lift more weight. Our immune system responds much better depending on how well we sleep.
3. Increased risk of disease or illness
A lack of sleep alters the way in which genes in the body's cells behave, according to researchers at Surrey University in Guildford, UK. They found that genes involved in inflammation increase their activity if we’re not getting enough sleep, and they behave as though the body is under stress. This seems to be part of the fight and flight mechanism we display when we’re stressed. It’s a primordial reaction. The resulting inflammation helps to cushion the effects of potential attacks by wild animals or human enemies. The body is therefore ‘on alert’ even though no attack happens and this activates the immune system even though it isn’t needed. Scientists fear this explains the link between sleep deprivation and negative health outcomes such as heart disease and stroke.
4. Problems thinking
Research has shown that as we become more sleep-deprived, parts of the brain become inactive while we are awake. This explains why we feel ‘half-asleep’ sometimes, or perhaps, slightly dim-witted.
5. You lose your coping mechanisms
A lack of sleep affects our personalities. We lose our sense of humour. We may become irritable and less tolerant. We snap at members of our family, we’re grumpy with colleagues. Things that might generally amuse us seem annoying.
What prevents you sleeping?
- Mobile phones in the bedroom disturb sleep for one in eight of us.
- An uncomfortable or noisy environment
- An irregular routine - going to bed late or waking up early prevents the likelihood of restorative deep sleep
- Daylight – or too much artificial light
- Stimulants - coffee, alcohol, food
- Foods containing a chemical called tyramine (such as bacon, cheese, nuts and red wine) can keep us awake. Tyramine causes the release of noradrenaline, a brain stimulant. Carbohydrates have the opposite effect and release serotonin, which makes us sleepy.
- The wrong body temperature
- A busy mind
- Stress is the enemy of sleep. In bed, our mind is left free to wander, and feeling anxious about
How much sleep is needed?
Children need more sleep than adults because they are learning at a higher rate. Adults need 7-9 hours of sleep per night, one-year-olds need approximately 11 to 14 hours, school age children between 9 and 11, and teenagers between 8 and 10.
If you are sleep deprived, you cannot simply make up for it at weekends. It is best to develop a sleep habit that is consistent, regardless of your age, to meet your sleep needs every night. This will enable you to keep on top of life's challenges on a day-by-day basis.
The factors that influence our sleep patterns are thought to include our physical size, muscle mass, brain size and our ability to think.
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