More Americans are reporting sleeping less than six hours a night. The demands of our fast-paced lives have turned caffeine into the most-used drug in the United States, as we may try to fake ourselves into thinking that we are alert and energetic enough to take on a full day of work, social and family responsibilities.
A couple of cups of coffee sure do give us the illusion that we’re mentally and physically capable of starting our day. This, however, is an unwise approach, if done frequently; over time, shorting yourself on sleep will only lead to a faster progression toward bad health.
While periodic caffeine consumption throughout one’s day may trick the brain in the short term, our bodies aren’t fooled in the long term.
The pressure to compete and to succeed that is such a part of American society is perhaps the main reason behind the fact that we don’t hear a lot about the damage that ongoing sleep deprivation produces in anyone and everyone who foregoes any sleep routinely, due to busy schedules, stress, ambient noise, sickness or whatever factor caused the loss of sleep.
One thing is certain: the importance of sleep — and the key role that it plays in maintaining good health — are subjects that people should be educated about much more.
Most Americans’ willingness to forego one or two hours of sleep a night surely stems from their unawareness of just how important getting a regular good night’s sleep is for our entire body. Some studies done on animals seem to indicate that the only other thing that’s more important to the survival of an organism than getting proper sleep — is food.
In one experiment with laboratory rats that normally live between 2 and 3 years, those that were deprived daily of a sleep stage that humans and other mammals go through when they sleep, REM sleep, lived only 5 weeks. Rats that were deprived of all stages of sleep only lived 3 weeks. You can see that tampering with the rats’ sleep every night decreased their life spans to almost nothing. The length of time it takes rats to die from total sleep deprivation is comparable to how long it would take them to die from total starvation.
People who make it through the day with the help of caffeine may think their minds and bodies can hack it; but the truth is that even 1 or 2 hours of lost sleep a night are enough to impair the person’s physiologic processes and increase risk for short-term and long-term illness.
For starters, when not interfered with, every human goes through the same recurring five sleep stages throughout the night: stages 1, 2, 3, 4, and REM (or rapid eye movement) sleep.
The Five Stages of Our Sleep Cycle
- Stage 1 is light sleep: a person’s eyes move slowly, and person can be easily awakened.
- In Stage 2, eye movements stop; brain waves slow down, with infrequent bursts of rapid waves called “sleep spindles.”
- In Stage 3, extremely slow brain waves, called delta waves, start to appear, with periodic smaller, faster waves.
- By Stage 4, the brain is producing almost only delta waves. It is much harder to wake someone up during stages 3 or 4; together, these stages are called “deep sleep.” A person awakened during stage 3 or 4 will be disoriented and may take a few moments to make sense of what is happening.
- When we reach REM sleep, the last stage, our breathing becomes faster, irregular and shallow; our eyes start darting in different directions (hence the name of this stage). Our blood pressure and heart rate increase. Most dreaming occurs during this stage; penile erections happen in men. (These erections are often not sexual in nature, but the body’s way of pumping fresh blood into the penis every night, to keep it healthy.)
Not only are the stages the same for all of us, and we go through them in the same order, but the brain also determines how many minutes we spend in each stage.
As adults, we spend about 50 percent of our sleeping time in stage 2, 20 percent in REM sleep, and 30 percent in light sleep (stage 1) and deep sleep (stages 3 and 4). Infants, on the other hand, spend 50 percent of their sleep time in REM sleep, which explains why we see sleeping babies dream often.
As our sleeping cycle progresses through the night, the length of time that we spend on the different stages changes. Our sleep cycle initially has relatively short REM periods and long deep-sleep periods. As the night continues, REM sleep periods get longer, and deep-sleep periods shorten. As our cycle nears its end, we spend most of our time in stages 1, 2, and REM, and little time in deep sleep.
The above spells out that each stage is a necessary part of our whole nightly sleep cycle, and that the brain needs to spend a determined number of minutes in each stage, at each point of the cycle. None of these sleep stages is optional, nor do we get to choose how long we spend in each stage — our brain decides all that for us. Altering these natural sleep cycles by waking up too soon is courting disruption of our normal mental and bodily processes.
While we as busy, enterprising citizens may decide to “cut corners” by foregoing part of our night’s sleep requirement, believing that a little caffeine will fix everything, it’s clearly not so simple. Our brains keep a running tally of the numbers.
As an example, if our REM sleep is disrupted (most likely, by waking up before we’d gotten a full night’s rest), our brains will not follow the normal sleep cycle the next time we sleep. Instead, we may skip stages 1 through 4, go directly into REM sleep, and spend longer periods in that stage, until we’ve caught up with our REM requirements.
The Serious Safety and Health Hazards of Sleep Deprivation
A majority of adult Americans complains of suffering from periodic insomnia every year. Virtually all of us have had nights when we just couldn’t go to sleep, much as we needed to.
We know that lost sleep will make us fatigued, irritable, less coordinated, forgetful, and slow our reaction times.
If we lost enough sleep just in one night, studies using driving simulators have shown that we may perform as poorly as, or even worse than, a person who is intoxicated. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration admonishes that driver fatigue is responsible for an estimated 100,000 motor vehicle accidents — and 1,500 deaths in the United States every year.
Ongoing sleep deprivation has been linked to cardiovascular disease, including high blood pressure, irregular heart beats, and increased levels of stress hormones in the blood. Sleep deprivation has also been linked to diminished immune system function. A single night of insufficient sleep will also interfere with the body’s ability to use sugars, producing in a person a temporary diabetic-like condition.
When you miss any sleep, you develop a “sleep debt” that will eventually have to be made up, to restore your system to normal functioning. If this debt is not made up, a person is at higher risk of getting depression.
Scientists have only begun scratching the surface in recent years, in their understanding of how and why sleep restores us the way it does and is so essential to our good health.
But they have some solid leads. For example, during deep sleep, growth hormone is released into the blood of children and young adults. Further, many cells show increased production and decreased breakdown of proteins during deep sleep. Being that proteins are used to make new cells and to repair cellular damage, it would appear that deep sleep keeps us from aging and from becoming sick.
The fast firing of electrical charges by neural cells in between slow brain wave emission when we are in deep sleep may help strengthen memories and improve recollection.
REM sleep, on the other hand, stimulates brain regions used in learning. This may explain why babies spend half their sleep time in this stage at an age when neural connections in the learning centers of the cerebral cortex are growing by leaps and bounds.
No matter how you look at it, getting a full night’s sleep is as essential to your health as anything you can think of, or more so. The average adult requires about 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night, while teens need 9, younger children need 10 or 11, and babies about 16.
For adults, it’s important to avoid sleep thieves like caffeine (which can lead to insomnia), nicotine (which will cause a heavy smoker to sleep very lightly and spend less time in REM sleep), and alcohol — which, while it may help you doze off, will keep you in the lighter stages of sleep and diminish time spent in REM and more healing deep sleep.
By Jamell Andrews