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The Dangers of Sleep Deprivation

Written by S.O.

Posted on February 7, 2015 at 9:45 pm

The Dangers of Sleep Deprivation

In our relentlessly fast paced society, where 24-hour connectivity, international business (operating around the clock), and the ever-increasing number of available distractions have filled our time with responsibilities, options for entertainment, and beyond… We’re hurting ourselves in an ongoing way.

In some attempt to get more work done, to keep up with our friends, to simply not “miss something” – many, many people are depriving themselves of a precious resource: sleep.

This certainly isn’t a new phenomenon – people have been pushing themselves to the brink of exhaustion for centuries – but nowadays it seems more common, and not just that, but easier to do. Streaming media makes it much easier to spend all night watching Netflix. Social media makes us want to check up on the activity of others, no matter what time it is.

But regardless of the reasons we’re staying up too late – chatting online or soaking up the nightlife, spending time with kids or trying to keep up with work demands – there’s one truth that spans the whole problem:

Lack of sleep is terrible for your health.

Sleep is essential to our survival. The Sleep Science division of Harvard Medical School compares the need for sleep to hunger and thirst, noting how our bodies naturally regulate the amounts we need, like food and drink, with the feeling of sleepiness. But even if we can recognize sleep as a necessary activity, there are still a range of theories on why we need sleep in the first place.

Some scholars point toward an evolutionary benefit of periods of inactivity, and others toward the necessity of energy conservation. There is also evidence to suggest that sleep is a key factor in brain development, immune system strength, and a variety of restorative processes within the body.

While we may not know the exact reasons why sleep is so important, with these theories – and the measurable effects of sleep deprivation – we can be certain of its importance.

So, what happens when you aren’t getting enough sleep?

For your own personal health, not getting enough sleep has a laundry list of health risks – here are just a few:

• Increased cortisol (stress hormone) production
• Changes in metabolism that lead to weight gain
• Hormonal changes that lead to increased hunger and decreased satiation
• In men, decreased testosterone and lower sperm count
• Decreased body temperature
• Increased risk of type 2 diabetes
• High blood pressure
• Increased risk of stroke
• Depression and anxiety

In short, not getting enough sleep takes a serious toll on your body and its many intricate systems. Hormonal imbalances can lead to dietary problems and risk of obesity, which in turn increases the risk of diabetes…

The point is that the problems compound on themselves. Trouble in one area can lead to trouble in another. Your body’s systems are interrelated, and all of them need sleep!

The other side of sleep deprivation also involves risks to you personally, but perhaps more importantly, not getting enough sleep also creates risk for those around you.

Insufficient sleep has immediate consequences for your motor skills, reaction time, decision making, and general awareness – and this poses risks for the people you’re around throughout the day. Sleep deprivation impairs driving, makes you irritable, and makes you more likely to make mistakes. Depending on your line of work, any of these problems can have devastating consequences for you – and others.

Even if you aren’t making mistakes, tiredness leads to decreased productivity, which circles back to more stress, which then leads to more health problems… and on and on. Skipping out on sleep is a good way to hurt your health, get stressed out, anger your boss or coworkers, be less productive, and at the end of the day, feel worse for it.

Again, the list of negative consequences is massive – depriving yourself from sleep is so much more costly than simply feeling a little tired or sluggish. Nearly every major system in your body is affected in one way or another, all the way down to reduced oxygen levels in your blood!

By this point, you likely understand how critical sleep is to your health – and the general safety of the public – but that doesn’t change social pressures to sleep less, or the habits so many of us have that negatively impact the quality and quantity of our sleep.

So, what can we do about it?

First, we can understand a few basic factors about our basic sleep patterns and habits, as well as the conditions that cause problems within them

Circadian Rhythm

We all have a natural ebb and flow to our patterns of feeling sleepy or wakeful, regulated by our “biological clock” and often referred to as Circadian rhythm. This rhythm follows a roughly 24-hour cycle, with peaks and valleys of wakefulness throughout the day.

Unfortunately, though, the hectic schedules kept by so many people result in ignoring these natural rhythms, with people “pushing through” periods of sleepiness, or fighting against the body’s desire for sleep with caffeine and energy drinks.

To put it bluntly – listening to your body, and getting in tune with its natural rhythms, is the first step to healthier, more restful sleep.

Blue Light

A byproduct of the modern world, the blue light from our screens and electronic devices actually has serious effects on the ability to (and quality of) sleep.

This relates directly to the Circadian rhythm mentioned above, which is partly regulated by exposure to light. Long ago, we were bound to the light patterns offered by the sun, but today, we have gadgets and artificial lights – particularly those that emit short wavelength blue light (like computer screens) that can actually reset our body clocks and prevent the releases of melatonin, a hormone that helps us fall asleep.

Very similar blue light occurs naturally from the sun in the early morning – helping to wake us up – but those wavelengths don’t occur naturally in the afternoon and evening, and our bodies expect precisely that pattern of exposure. Naturally, we count on blue light to wake us up in the morning, and count on its absence to help us fall asleep at night. Disrupting these patterns with artificial sources of light throws our natural rhythms off course, and thereby damages our quality and quantity of sleep.

As you probably guessed, that means staying away from computers, tablets, smartphones, TVs, and the like – especially in the evening – will have a positive impact on sleep.

Beyond those two major factors, practices such as waking up at the same time each day, avoiding caffeine and energy drinks, staying away from sleep aids (like sleeping pills), not “binge sleeping” when time allows, allowing for uninterrupted sleep, and learning your own body’s unique needs can massively improve the amount of sleep you get, and the quality of that sleep when you get it.

Remember, sleep deprivation is NOT a way to get more done – in fact, it’s quite the opposite. For you own sake, and the wellbeing of those around you, allow yourself the sleep you need to be healthy!

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