lack of sleep and health

As members of a society addicted to faster living, we often feel pressure to make it on less sleep than our bodies need. But contrary to societal beliefs, sleep is not for the weak; it actually helps our bodies stay strong. Nor does getting enough sleep mean we’re lazy; in reality, we’re more productive at home and work when we’re well-rested. 

If you’re motivated to fit 28 hours into a 24-hour day, is powering through on as little sleep as possible even healthy? Science has weighed in, and the extent of sleep deprivation’s impact might surprise you. 

How Sleep Deprivation Effects Brain Function:

In his book, Why We Sleep, Professor Matthew Walker, Director of UC Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab, shows that going without sleep for one-night decreases learning capacity by 40% (hear that teens and 20-somethings who can still pull all-nighters?). Professor Walker also reveals that, after 36 hours without sleep, levels of amyloid-beta, a protein closely associated with Alzheimer’s disease, are increased by as much as 25-30%, suggesting that running on fumes increases the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

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Walker’s work also demonstrates that sleep deprivation can affect our decision-making skills and damage our ability to create and maintain relationships. How? Sleep deprivation alters function in the amygdala, the brain’s emotional center, making you up to 60% more prone to impulsive behavior. 

Lack of Sleep Effect on Immune Function:

Walker’s research also indicates that cutting sleep duration reduces the activity of natural killer cells, also known as NK cells or large granular lymphocytes (LGL), by up to 70%. These cells help clear out damaged tissue that can become cancerous. Additionally, doctors report that a lack of sleep can increase our risk of infection. According to a study led by a UC San Francisco sleep researcher, “subjects who had slept less than six hours a night the week before were 4.2 times more likely to catch the cold compared to those who got more than seven hours of sleep, and those who slept less than five hours were 4.5 times more likely.”

Lack of Sleep and Weight Gain:

Professor Walker also explains that lack of sleep has been shown to impair beta-cell function, reducing insulin production in the pancreas and increasing insulin resistance among muscle and fat cells, both of which are the signs of Type 2 Diabetes. This change in blood sugar can lead to rapid weight gain as the body loses its ability to correctly use its fuel. Of interest, Professor Walker also notes in his book that poor sleep often leads to overeating…200-300 additional calories per meal, as sleep deprivation causes the body to crave high-calorie foods! Who would have guessed that sleeping more can help you net fewer calories per day, compared with burning calories by staying awake?

So, what’s the magic number? How much sleep do we actually need? Adults between the ages of 26-64 years old need 7-9 hours, according to research.

When we sleep, we recharge our brain, boost our immune system, and repair our endocrine system. Catching some Zs has so many positive effects (and negative ones when we skimp on quality time with our pillows), it’s clear that sleep is essential to well-being. So, the next time you hear your inner voice saying, “I have so much to do, I can’t afford to get eight hours of sleep,” ask yourself, “Can I really afford NOT to get the sleep I need?” With the right amount of quality sleep, you’ll see your life and your career RISE and SHINE.

Leigh Ann Errico is a Georgetown University-certified leadership coach, Corentus-certified team coach, and the founder of LAErrico & Partners. 

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