Can I function on less than 8 hours of sleep?
Sleep is essential for a person’s health and well-being, according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF). A recent poll taken by the NSF found that more people are sleeping less than six hours a night, and 75% of us experience sleep difficulties a few nights per week. Although a short-lived bout of insomnia is generally nothing to worry about, most sleep problems go undiagnosed and untreated. In addition, more than 40% of adults experience daytime tiredness, severe enough to interfere with their daily activities, at least a few days each month. The bigger concern is chronic sleep loss, which can contribute to health problems such as weight gain, high blood pressure, and a decrease in the immune system’s power, reports the Harvard Women’s Health Watch.
Everyone’s individual needs are different. Most healthy adults need an average of eight hours of sleep a night. However, some individuals are able to function with as little as six hours. Others can’t perform at their peak unless they’ve slept ten hours. And, contrary to common myth, the need for healthy slumber doesn’t decline with age but the ability to get eight hours a night does.
Psychologists and other scientists who study the causes of sleep disorders have shown that these problems can directly or indirectly be tied to abnormalities in the following systems:
- Brain functions, learning and memory: Sleep helps the brain commit new information to memory through a process called memory consolidation. In studies, people who’d slept after learning a task did better on tests, later.
- Metabolic functions and weight: Chronic sleep deprivation may cause weight gain by affecting the way our bodies process and store carbohydrates, and by altering levels of hormones that affect our appetite, and can lead to diabetes.
- Mood: Sleep loss may result in irritability, impatience, inability to concentrate, and moodiness. Too little can also leave you too tired to do the things you like to do.
- Cardiovascular health: Serious sleep disorders have been linked to hypertension, increased stress hormone levels, chances of stroke and irregular heartbeat.
- Immune system, and disease: Sleep deprivation alters immune function, including the activity of the body’s killer cells. Keeping up with sleep may also help fight cancer.
Furthermore, unhealthy conditions, disorders and diseases can also cause sleep problems. They include:
- Pathological drowsiness, insomnia and accidents: Lack of sleep contributes to a tendency to fall asleep during the daytime. These lapses may cause falls and mistakes such as medical errors, air traffic mishaps, and road accidents.
- Emotional disorders: Depression, bipolar disorders can be aggravated by insomnia
- Alcohol and drug abuse: People often use alcohol or drugs in order to sleep.
- Decreased decision-making capacity: More on how sleep is essential to the brain’s decision making capacity in next week’s blog
What disrupts your sleep?
Stress is the number one cause of short-term sleeping difficulties. According to experts, common stress triggers for these difficulties include school or job related pressures, a family or marriage problems and a serious illness or death in the family. Usually the sleep problem disappears when the stressful situation passes. However, if short-term sleep problems such as insomnia aren’t managed properly from the beginning, they can persist long after the original stress has passed.
Drinking alcohol or beverages containing caffeine in the afternoon or evening, exercising close to bedtime, following an irregular morning and nighttime schedule, and working or doing other mentally intense activities right before or after getting into bed can disrupt restful slumber.
If you are a shift worker, as are 20% of employees in the United States, sleep may be particularly elusive. Shift work forces you to try to sleep when activities around you — and your own biological rhythms — signal you to be awake. One study shows that shift workers are two to five times more likely than employees with daytime hours to fall asleep on the job. Traveling is also disruptive, especially jet lag and traveling across several time zones. This can upset your biological or circadian rhythms.
Environmental factors such as when a room is too hot or cold, too noisy or too brightly lit, can be a barrier to sound night’s rest. Parents often complain of sleeping problems as interruptions from children or other family members will disrupt sleep. Other influences requiring attention are the comfort and size of your bed and the habits of your sleep partner. If you have to lie beside someone who has different sleep preferences, snores, tosses and turns, can’t fall or stay asleep, or has other sleep difficulties, it often becomes your problem, too. Pets sleeping in the bed are another factor in sleep disruption.
Having a 24/7 lifestyle or the demands of working in a global marketplace can also interrupt regular sleep patterns; the global economy that includes round-the-clock industries working to beat the competition; widespread use of nonstop automated systems to communicate and an increase in shift work makes for sleeping at regular times difficult.
Groups that are at particular risk for sleep deprivation include night shift workers, physicians whose average is 6.5 hours a day; residents whose average sleep is 5 hours a day, truck drivers, parents, caregivers and teenagers.
Next week’s post will focus on why we can’t make good decisions when we are tired.
Resources for this article came from:
National Sleep Foundation
American Academy of Sleep Medicine
American Insomnia Association
Sleep Research Society
NIH National Center for Sleep Disorders Research
American Psychological Association
Blake, et al, Psychological Reports, 1998; National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute Working Group on Insomn
David F. Dinges, PhD, Professor of Psychology in Psychiatry, Chief, Division of Sleep and Chronobiology, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine
Van Dongen HPA, Dinges DF (2005). Sleep, circadian rhythms, and psychomotor vigilance performance. Clinics in Sports Medicine 24: 237-249.