Sleep is widely underestimated in our modern society. In earlier days sleep was referred to "the golden chain that ties health and our bodies together". But today people even say that we should have coffee because we can still sleep when we are dead. Somehow being overworked and sleep deprived did become a sign for hard work and a status symbol. But what are we actually doing to our bodies and our life by constantly denying ourselves enough sleep? Why do we even need sleep?
One fact is that adults need between 7h and 9h of sleep while teenagers need even more than 9h. There are many theories why we need to sleep. One theory that is widely accepted is the idea that we need sleep for restoration and damage repair. In fact there are some genes that encode so call "growth hormones" that are only switched on during sleep. Some researcher even take the restoration idea further and claim that too little sleep promotes the development of Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's disease progresses because a waste product of the brain, called Amyloid beta, that accumulates in the brain and damages the nerves. They could show that Amyloid beta is removed much less efficiently during sleep deprivation. But on the bright sight they claim that sleep deprivation can only promote the progression of Alzheimer's' disease and not initiate it. (For further information on this topic check out this talk Sleep/Alzheimer's disease)
But maintaining the brains health is not the only purpose of sleep. While sleeping, the brain processes our memories and helps us to learn. It is doing so by strengthening important synaptic connections and removing unimportant connection. So, our brain is always in a rebuilding process that mainly takes place during sleep. In fact something that we learned during the day almost becomes useless if we don't sleep afterwards. Sleep deprivation also has an impact on our ability to solve problems and on our creativity. So, most people who embrace in a stressful life with little sleep are actually sabotaging their work. It has been shown that power naps at work dramatically increase the efficiency and quality of a task. But I guess that this is something, most people have already known. We work less efficient, so we work more... no big deal! But what are we actually doing to our bodies when we deny them sleep (other than promoting Alzheimer's disease)?
One thing that might probably interest everyone is the first fact. An accumulated sleep deprivation of 5h or less leads to an increase of obesity of about 50%! Now, why is that? Sleep deprivation leads to the release of the hunger hormone Ghrelin which makes us crave carbohydrates especially in form of sugar. Hence we eat more. At the same time the body does not remove the sugar from our blood as efficiently as it does with enough sleep. As a result the blood sugar levels are constantly increased which finally leads to diabetes.
Sociologists even associate sleep deprivation with economical disadvantages. This makes sense once you realize which society group is most prone to sleep deprivation. It's often people who live in poverty, close to busy streets, in dangerous neighborhood or maybe they are single parents. Assuming that a lack of sleep leads to a decreased productivity, it will be even harder for them to break through a vicious cycle of poverty and sleep deprivation. In fact it has been shown that children who don't have regular bedtime routines and enough sleep by the age of 3, already show a dramatic increase in cognitive skills by the age of 5 compared to a control group with regular bed time routines. And adults who did not get used to a bedtime routine in their childhood will often not provide a bed time routine for their children. So, sleep deprivation can be transmitted from generation to generation. Apart from that, sleep deprivation is an issue of public safety. In the USA there are more accidents caused by sleep deprivation than by drunk driving. 48h without sleep equal an intake of 10 glasses of wine.
So, now that we know how important sleep is and what damage it can do if we don't to sleep enough, what can we do in order to sleep better?
There are many things that we already know but that most of us don't do. We should not have caffeine after lunch and turn off mobile phones and TV before bed. Blue lights in general will keep our brain from releasing Melatonin, the sleeping hormone. The bedroom should be as dark as possible and slightly cooled down because our body decreases its temperature to 36°C during sleep. We should also refrain from alcohol as a help to fall asleep. Alcohol can help to make you fall asleep but it inhibits all the processes that take place during sleep, so it will make your sleep less efficient. And here is one last thing for everyone who likes to stay up long and sleep out till the late morning. There is no scientific evidence that going to bed early, although you are not tired, will improve your sleep. Instead people should stick to their inner clock as often as possible because this will give us the best quality of sleep.
With that last piece of information I will say goodbye for today. Sleep well!
All the best!
Picture: Urheberrecht: <a href='http://de.123rf.com/profile_Cole123RF'>Cole123RF / 123RF Stockfoto</a>