The State of Sleep Deprivation in America
If you’re able to pause between sips of coffee or Red Bull and keep your eyes open long enough to read this message, please pay heed. You need to start regularly getting an adequate night’s sleep. Not enough rest is bad for your physical and mental health, and even have deadly consequences.
The Mayo Clinic, one of the nation’s most prestigious medical institutions, recommends on its website that adults get seven to eight hours of sleep each night. But a lot of Americans disregard that advice. A 2009 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 35.3 percent of Americans reported that they typically got less than seven hours of sleep daily.
Part of the reason is that sleep is really important for maintaining our overall health according to the National Institutes of Health. During deep sleep, growth hormone is released in children and young adults and cells use the downtime to repair themselves from damage caused by stress and exposure to ultraviolet rays. The break seems especially crucial for the brain, whose nerve cells, or neurons, can become so energy-depleted and polluted with waste products from normal cellular activity that they may begin to malfunction if you stay awake. Some parts of the brain that control emotions, decision-making processes, and social interactions show drastically reduced activity, which suggests that adequate rest is also critical to their waking function.
Research suggests that regular sleep helps the brain put in extra work, like an athlete trying to get better by working out in the off-season. Based on research with rats, for example, scientists believe that nerve-signaling patterns are repeated during deep sleep, which may help encode memories and improve learning.
While we don’t generally think of sleep deprivation as a massive public health problem in America, medical research suggests that inadequate sleep plays a factor in a surprising array of maladies, according to Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation, a compendium of sleep research studies published by The Institute of Medicine. Here are a few of the more serious ones.
• Obesity: Studies show that the less that you sleep, the greater the likelihood that you’ll pack on the pounds. In one study, subjects in their twenties who got less than six hours of sleep each night were 7.5 times likely to have a higher body mass index than people who got adequate sleep, even when family history, the amount of exercise, and other factors were accounted for. Studies suggest that not getting enough sleep can contribute to lower levels of leptin, a hormone that controls appetite, and higher levels of ghrelin, which tends to make you more ravenous.
• Diabetes: A 2005 study found that middle-aged and older adults who got six hours of sleep each night were 1.7 times more likely to develop diabetes, and those who got five hours or less were 2.5 times as likely.
• Cardiovascular disease and hypertension: A 2011 study published in Journal of the American Heart Association reported that people who suffered from insomnia had between a 27 and 45 percent increased risk of having a heart attack, in which a part of the heart muscle becomes blocked and can’t get oxygen. Another study, published in 2013 in European Heart Journal, found that chronic insomniacs had three times the risk of heart failure, in which the heart is so weakened that it can’t pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs. A study published in the journal Stroke in 2014 reported that people who suffered from insomnia also had a 54 percent higher chance of being hospitalized for a stroke over a four-year period.
• Immune system: According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, sleep deprivation can contribute to decreased production of proteins called cytokines, which your body needs when you have an infection or inflammation, and also hinders infection-fighting antibodies and cells. A study published in 2012 in the journal Sleep reported that subjects who got less than six hours of sleep were 11.5 less likely to get protection from hepatitis B vaccination than others who slept seven or more hours.
In addition to the physiological effects of sleeplessness, it can also have damaging effects on mental health, because sleep regulates the brain’s flow of chemicals such as epinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin, which are closely linked to mood and behavior.
“Mood and sleep use the same neurotransmitters,” Dr. Joyce Walseben, a psychiatrist and the former director of Bellevue Hospital’s Sleep Disorders Center, explained in a 2013 Atlantic magazine article. “It’s very hard to tell if someone has sleep loss or depression.”
When those neurotransmitters are disrupted, it can cause chemical changes in your brain, resulting in swings from manic highs to angry, depressed lows, so that a sleep-deprived person starts to look like someone suffering from bipolar disorder.
Inadequate rest also increases a person’s risk of having accidents. By now, you probably know that it’s not a good idea to drive after having had a few drinks, because driving under the influence is not only illegal, but potentially deadly. But oddly, many of us are willing to get behind the wheel even though we haven’t had enough sleep the night before. According to the Federal Centers for Disease Control, as many as 6,000 fatal crashes are caused each year by drowsy drivers, who are less attentive, have slower reaction time, and an impaired ability to make decisions. A 2009 CDC study reported that 4.7% of drivers reported nodding off or falling asleep while driving at least once in the preceding month.
And more than a quarter admitted that sometime in the month before the survey, they’d driven despite being so tired that they had difficulty keeping their eyes open. "Most of us believe that there are a lot more fall asleep crashes than reported," Dr. Allan Pack, director of the Center for Sleep at University of Pennsylvania, told ABC News in 2011."This is probably just the tip of the iceberg. It's probably not reported accurately because a number of states don't even having a 'falling asleep while driving' tick in the box when reporting a car crash."
Add up all of those effects, and the result may be a shortened lifespan. In a study published in 2010 in the journal Sleep, researchers reported that over a 14-year period, men who complained of chronic insomnia and routinely slept for less than six hours a night were four times more likely to die.
But the upshot of all this is that you need to make a habit of getting a good night’s sleep, to avoid potentially serious health problems. Or, to look at it in a more positive way, if you get adequate rest, your body and mind are going to work and feel better.