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The Hidden Dangers of Sleep Deprivation

Knowing better is not the same as doing better.

In the interest of full disclosure, I need to be fully upfront and honest with you: sometimes I don’t follow my own advice.

Trust me, I pay for my lack of diligence.

Take right now, for example. It’s been a busy couple of weeks, and my extra workload has cut into my sleep time…and I feel it all over my body. My eyes are tired, my hands are heavy, and the words are coming slowly — my body is letting me know that my sleep tank is low.

Now, I learned long ago the importance of maintaining a consistent daily wake up time. When I made that switch in my lifestyle, I saw a huge positive spike in my energy, mood, and productivity. By definition, that means late nights steal from my sleep. And lately, I’ve been burning the midnight oil.

Enough about me. Let’s talk about sleep.

Sleep Or Die

It might sound overstated, but it’s not. I don’t think people understand the importance of sleep. So many of my friends and colleagues are of the mindset that says, “I have too much to accomplish right now, and I can sleep when I’m dead.” All I can do is shake my head. I can tell them until I’m blue in the face how that way of thinking will make that day come more quickly, but people don’t connect the dots.

The average human needs between 7 and 8 hours of sleep per night. My military friends like to point out the government studies that “prove” that you can survive on 90 minutes of sleep, and you can make a case for it…on a short-term basis. It’s not how we were designed to spend our lives.

Think about it…we existed for thousands of years before the electric light turned our nights into days. If we weren’t supposed to use that time sleeping, what were we supposed to do with it? Stare at the wall?

You can’t burn the candle at both ends and make it up on the weekends. It doesn’t work like that. I’ve read in multiple places that when you short yourself the sleep you need, your body maintains that deficit from now on, even if you sleep for two days straight. The key is consistency – going to bed and getting up at the same time every night. I realize that’s a challenge for some people who tend to be…shall we say…schedule-challenged? But if you can get this one habit established in your life, you might be surprised at how easily the others fall into place. But that’s a topic for another day.

I think we can all agree that sleep-deprivation is bad if you are operating a vehicle: if you doze off at the wheel, you are a danger to yourself and everyone around you. But even if you manage to stay awake, propped up on RedBull and Twizzlers, your reaction time is slowed down and you are still dangerous. That much should be obvious (even if we don’t always heed it).

But you might not recognize how it affects the rest of your life.

Surprising Ways Sleep Deprivation Hurts You

Sleep deprivation hampers your attention to detail, your memory retention, and your ability to process new information. Have you ever tried to read a legal document when you’re tired?

Maybe you’ve done the unthinkable and crammed for a final exam late into the evening. I can’t believe this is still a thing. Do people really still do this? Have we learned nothing from generations of late-night cramming sessions? It doesn’t work. Your brain uses sleep to organize the data it has received during the day and make connections between data points. Inventors and geniuses like Einstein use midday naps to give their brains a chance to process and integrate information. Sleep deprivation slows (or shuts down) that process, killing creativity.

If you want to retain the things you learn – whether it’s crocheting, investing, a musical instrument, or a second language, use the synaptic reallocation function of sleep as a part of your learning and retention strategy.

If your kids are struggling in school, first get the sugar out of their diet, and then take a look at their sleep patterns. I believe that many learning disabilities, outbursts, and behavioral problems can be tied to sleep deprivation.

Have you ever noticed that “tired” and “grouchy” frequently go together? Sleep deprivation pours molasses over your mental processes, makes you feel helpless, and may make you feel hopeless. Sleepy people are irritable, unhappy, anxious, and even depressed. Several of my colleagues in the mental health realm suggest to their depressed patients that they start by getting more sleep. Postpartum depression is closely linked to sleep deprivation. Stress that keeps you up at night becomes a never-ending rabbit hole because sleep deprivation increases and intensifies stress.

Sleep deprivation feeds your pain. During the sleeping process, your brain resets many of the neural pathways that transmit pain signals around your body (we’ve talked here about inflammation in the past). When you don’t give your nervous system a break, the signals tend to intensify and your brain becomes less able to recognize and respond appropriately to the signals.

Sleep deprivation also puts extra strain on your vital organs – especially your heart. C-reactive proteins, which are associated with heart attack risk, tend to be higher in people who don’t get enough sleep. High blood pressure is a common symptom in sleep-deprived people.

The same set of neurotransmitters that manage your sleep manage your appetite. If your sleep schedule is out of whack, you may find that you are snacky at odd times of the day and night. Remember that peaceful nap you take after a big Thanksgiving dinner? That’s serotonin balancing out your digestion and sleep. As you sleep, your body has a chance to process cholesterol. That’s why you’ll often find sleep-deprived people also deal with more stress, heart disease, and obesity than well-rested people.

Athletes who get enough sleep typically perform better than their sleep-deprived peers because their muscles have had a chance to release and relax enough to reset themselves. The heart especially benefits from the relaxation of sleep.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Research is constantly showing us new benefits to sleep.

So How Do We Get More And Better Sleep?

There are a couple of things you can do to improve your sleep.

  1. Drink more water throughout the day. Hydrating your body smoothes your joints, lubricates muscles, and nourishes your brain, which is almost 85% water. Dehydration and insomnia are friends, and they like to work with pain in your body. Drink more water.
  2. Stop drinking caffiene at least 9 to 10 hours before you plan to go to bed. That gives your body time to flush that toxin out so it stops stimulating your nervous system and adrenal glands. As you get adequate sleep, you will find that your craving for caffeine stimulation will subside. That’s just an added bonus. I’m as guilty as the next guy, but I also recognize that it’s a bad habit.
  3. Take your last drink of alcohol about 2 to 3 hours before you go to bed. Give it time to flush out of your system. As it wears off, your normal neurotransmitter patterns resume, and that can disturb your sleep.
  4. Turn off the news at least 2 to 3 hours before you go to bed. In fact, just shut it off in general. Most of it is made up, anyway. You don’t need that aggravation keeping you up at night.
  5. No electronic devices for at least an hour before you go to bed. The blue light of your computer, TV, tablet, and smartphone activate the “awake” signals in your brain, keeping you stimulated when you want to be settling down.
  6. Make your bedroom a sanctuary away from the hustle of life. Don’t allow in any media, except maybe a good book. I recommend thick “blackout” curtains for the windows to keep out the constant glow of the city. Some people like noise-cancelling earbuds, quiet sound effects, or white noise to drown out noises that would interrupt your sleep. There are even MP3s that are supposed to loop constantly, simulating the different levels of sleep. I don’t know how well they work. I prefer good old-fashioned silence.
  7. Make peace with anyone you might be fighting with. The Apostle Paul said, “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Anger will ruin your sleep, and we’ve already talked about how unforgiveness will shorten your life. Deal with stuff out in the open – don’t let it fester.

Everyone Struggles With This At Times

I would be willing to bet that everyone you know deals with some interruption of their sleep on a regular basis, whether it is due to stress, pain, work, travel, or just a crazy schedule. It’s easy to forget how critical it is to maintaining good health. With that in mind, would you take the next eight seconds to share it on your favorite social media platform? You might be surprised who needs to hear this today – and it is serious enough that you might save someone’s life.

While you’re there, take a moment to join our community on Facebook, where we have a whole library of helpful health articles and a place for you to ask questions and get honest answers.

If you live in the Naples area, be sure to join us for our next Fundamental Foods Dinner at my office behind the YMCA on Pine Ridge Road. Thursday, April 13th, we will meet at 6:30 p.m. bring a dish to share or $10 cash and be sure to RSVP on our Facebook page. These dinners get bigger and more fun each time, so reserve your seat now.

“At the end of your feelings is NOTHING. At the end of your principles is a PROMISE.”  — Eric Thomas

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