You’re Probably Sleep Deprived – And That’s Not the Worst News

You're Probably Sleep Deprived - And That's Not the Worst News

Are you getting less than six hours of sleep a night? You’re not alone (according to the Centers for Disease Control, about one-third of the American working population is in your shoes). But you are sleep deprived. And new research has shown that chronic sleep deprivation is as bad for your brain as binge drinking.

Dr. Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist at Western University and the Chief Scientific Officer of Cambridge Brain Scientists, recently launched the biggest sleep study in the world in order to better understand the connection between health and sleep, especially as people are working harder – and sleeping less – than ever before.

“We know that this sleep disruption affects us in some ways and that some people feel the impact more than others,” says Owen in a press release for the study, which began this summer. “But there’s surprisingly little research into exactly how our brains deal with these sleep deficits.”

Here’s what we do know: most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep per night – any less than that, and you’re sleep deprived. And you can’t make up for lost sleep on the weekends.

“You can’t work very hard throughout the week, getting only six hours, and then somehow on the weekend think that you’re going to sleep more and be able to catch up on your sleep,” explains Dr. Farrell Cahill, PhD., Head of Research at Medisys Health Group. “That’s not how this works. “

“From a neurological perspective,” says Owen, “When you lose sleep, consider it gone forever.”

While the myriad of ways in which sleep deprivation is hurting us still hold a few secrets, here are just three ways that we already know chronic sleep deprivation can be hazardous for your health.

1. You’re more likely to suffer acute cognitive impairment.

This 2007 study is just one of many showing the links between sleep deprivation and cognitive impairment, notably problems with attention, working memory, long-term memory, and decision-making.

But Owen notes that more recent research has found that lack of sleep can go as far as disrupting emotional processing – which is no surprise to anyone who’s felt so frazzled that they get incensed at things that don’t merit quite so intense an emotional response (like tripping over a pair of shoes left in the hall or getting an e-mail requesting more information from a co-worker).

“The brain becomes less stable the longer you are awake, diminishing your ability to focus your cognitive resources where they are needed,” Owen explains to Medisys, noting that in one recent study, sleep-deprived individuals were shown to have less connectivity between active areas in the brain.

In fact, Farrell, writes that such impairment can grow to be so dire that driving while sleep deprived can be equivalent to drunk driving. Someone who wakes at 5:30am and is driving home at 11:30pm, Farrell notes, has the same cognitive impairment as someone with a blood alcohol level of 0.1 percent; in the United States, driving with a blood alcohol concentration at or above .08 is a crime.

2. You’re more likely to suffer from weight issues.

While getting exercise and eating right might seem like the two biggest contributing factors to healthy weight, it turns out that getting enough sleep is just as important – if not more so. After all, when you have enough sleep, you have more energy and are thus better able to make it to the gym, spin class, or even go for a walk on your lunch hour.

But getting enough sleep is also essential for your body’s ability to regulate its hormones properly, including those that influence hunger: cortisol, leptin, and all-important ghrelin, which Farrell notes is “the only appetite-stimulating hormone that we know of.”

“When it increases in circulation, it causes our brain to believe that we need to eat,” he says. “It makes us believe that we are hungry when we might not be.”

“Lack of sleep,” he continues, “appears to cause an increase in ghrelin, which therefore falsely signals to our body that we need to eat.”

Not only does this hormone imbalance contribute to weight gain, but long-term, it can also contribute to diseases linked to weight gain and obesity, including heart disease, metabolic diseases, and type-2 diabetes.

3. You’re more likely to get sick.

Sleep deprivation also weakens the immune system. A recent study from the University of Washington showed that in sets of twins, the twin with the shorter sleep duration had a more depressed immune system.

“What we show is that the immune system functions best when it gets enough sleep,” says lead author Dr. Nathaniel Watson, co-director of the UW Medicine Sleep Center at Harborview Medical Center. “The results are consistent with studies that show when sleep deprived people are given a vaccine, there is a lower antibody response and if you expose sleep deprived people to a rhinovirus they are more likely to get the virus.”

Senior author Dr. Sina Gharib, also noted that limited sleep deprivation in laboratory settings has previously been shown to increase inflammatory markers and activate immune cells, yet more data consistent with the theory that a proper amount of sleep is essential for optimal health.

How to Get Better Quality Sleep

These are just some of the reasons it’s important for us to commit to at least seven – and up to nine – hours of sleep a night (which might mean skipping your favorite show and getting back on the bedtime wagon). But even if you feel like you don’t have time to get more sleep, there are probably a few steps that you can do to ensure that, at the very least, you’re getting quality sleep.

Our experts recommend:

  • Exercising regularly to promote better sleep
  • Reducing stress to help you fall asleep more easily
  • Avoiding caffeine, to keep you from getting too wired at night
  • Unplugging devices, to make your bedroom a more relaxing place (and steer clear of blue light, which has been clinically shown to affect melatonin and thus be bad for sleep)
  • Keeping a constant sleep schedule of at least seven hours a night (and trying to stick to that schedule on Saturday and Sunday, too)

And above all, try to take a few things off your plate.

“Sleep deprivation is driven by our society, our need to achieve specific goals,” says Farrell. Bear in mind that you’ve only got 24 hours in the day, and about a third of that should be spent recharging so that you can enjoy and take full advantage of your waking hours.

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Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.