It’s become acceptable and commonplace for working adults to attempt to function on little sleep. In many high-powered careers, sacrificing sleep for extra hours in the office is simply a part of climbing the corporate ladder. Yet neuroscientists are now comparing lack of sleep to smoking in terms of the potential harm it can cause to the body and mind. Sleep-deprived people create risks in roles within the medical profession, where research has found sleep-deprived junior doctors have frequently made serious mistakes resulting in harm to patients. Lack of sleep is an obvious danger for workers in transport and logistics, where lives are at risk from driver impairment. But any kind of work where sound judgment is important can be adversely affected by tired employees.
It’s not just adults who are impacted by sleep deprivation. New Zealand children are second only to America for this problem, blamed in part on the increased popularity of electronic devices like tablets and gaming consoles. Staring at an electronic screen suppresses the production of melatonin, the hormone that promotes sleepiness. Screen time before bed is particularly bad for this reason. Insufficient sleep is strongly correlated to lower academic achievement in children, along with the same ill-effects to mood and behavior that are observed in adults.
For adolescents, changes in biological sleep patterns make it hard for teens to go to sleep earlier in the evening. 10 – 11 pm is a reasonable time for a teenager to turn in for the night, in keeping with their internal sleep settings. As adolescence is a time of growth and development, teens need more sleep than adults; about 8 – 10 hours is best. A large proportion of teens do not get enough sleep due to staying up late, then getting up early for school. As with adults, lack of sleep can affect learning, memory, and concentration, which can impact academic performance. It can also affect mood, at a time when hormonal changes are already inclined to produce unwelcome fluctuations in this area.
“The Great Sleep Deficit” has the potential to harm to an entire generation. It has been described as a public health epidemic, compromising the quality of life and increasing the risk of early death. A shift in attitude is required to reverse this harmful trend. Sleep needs to be recognised as of equal importance to diet and exercise in promoting optimal wellbeing.
In short, if you don’t get enough sleep, you’ll end up fat, sick and stupid.
How sleep deprivation impacts wellbeing
We know how bad sleep deprivation feels, but here are some of the ways it impacts on the body and mind.
Increases the risk of the following mental and physical health problems:
Diabetes, Obesity, Depression, Bi-Polar Disorder, High Blood Pressure, Heart Attack, Stroke
Impacts brain function
Thinking, learning, reasoning, problem-solving and memory are impaired by sleep deprivation. Attention and concentration are also reduced.
Risks to personal safety and the safety of others
Sleep deprivation was a factor in numerous large-scale industrial disasters, including the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown. Sleep deprived workers are far more likely to have accidents on the job.
Affects decision making
Heightened impulsiveness coupled with impaired thinking is key dangers identified by neuroscientists. All-night meetings before important decisions, a frequent occurrence in some business and political settings, are potentially a very bad idea.
Reduced sex drive
Decreased libido is a common side effect of sleep deprivation, linked to decreased energy, lower levels of sex hormones and low mood.
Lack of sleep promotes higher levels of ghrelin, the hormone which stimulates appetite. Sleep-deprived people are more likely to crave carbohydrates and sugary foods.
Lack of patience, irritability and a short attention span is not endearing personal qualities. Sleep deprivation will produce all three.
Damages other interpersonal skills
Lack of empathy and a reduced ability to interact with others are by-products of extreme tiredness.
Reduced quality of life
Chronic lack of energy and concentration can seriously compromise a person’s ability to participate in social and recreational activities, making life a fun-free zone.
Speeds up the aging process
Dark circles under the eyes, fine lines, reduction in skin elasticity and internal aging of vital organs are all linked to lack of sleep.
Sleep is a time when your body clears itself of toxins. If you don’t get enough sleep, you can wake up feeling almost hungover, due to toxin build-up.