Americans aren’t getting enough sleep. In fact, it’s gotten to be so much of a problem that in 2011 the Centers for Disease Control started calling it an epidemic. If the term “epidemic” seems like an over exaggeration, consider the following: more than a third (37%) of Americans are sleeping less than seven hours on work nights, a number eerily similar to the current American obesity rate (35%). Simply put, the sleep epidemic is just as big as the obesity epidemic.
However, the sleep epidemic doesn’t only rival obesity in size, but also gravity. Research shows that most people require seven or eight hours of sleep to function optimally. Failing to do so on a consistent basis can compromise your health and may even shorten your life. Regardless of age, inadequate sleep has a profound affect on memory, learning, creativity, productivity, emotional stability, and physical health. Should poor sleep progress into insomnia, there is also a higher risk for future psychiatric conditions including anxiety disorders, depression, and substance abuse.
Though without question, some of the most insidious effects of sleep deprivation involve mental processes like learning, memory, judgement, and problem solving. During sleep, new learning and memory pathways become encoded in the brain, and adequate sleep is necessary for those pathways to work optimally. A recent study focusing specifically on what happens inside the living brain during sleep found that healthy amounts of sleep formed significantly more new connections between neurons than during sleep deprivation. Furthermore, by disrupting specific phases of sleep, the research showed deep or slow-wave sleep was necessary for memory formation.
The effects of sleep deprivation are also felt in our energy levels, our ability to focus, and our stress levels, which can significantly affect our work lives. With 20% of American adults reporting performance-interrupting sleepiness multiple times a week, the costs of sleep deprivation on employee productivity, innovation, and interpersonal interaction are astounding, and it’s hurting corporate America’s bottom line. More specifically, in terms of health-related lost productivity, researchers place estimated cost to business due to fatigued workers at more than $136 billion per year. Insomnia alone plays a major role in impacting the bottom line, with indirect costs of untreated insomnia costing employers more than $4,388 per person a year, mostly related to absenteeism, lost productivity, and accidents.
With regards to physical health, and according to sleep specialists, a number of bodily systems are negatively affected by inadequate sleep: the heart, lungs, and kidneys; appetite, metabolism, and weight control; immune function and disease resistance; sensitivity to pain; reaction time; mood; and brain function. Thus, ignoring the importance of sleep can lead to serious health complications, increasing the risk of developing cancer, heart disease, type-2 diabetes, infections, and obesity.
Without a doubt, getting a good night’s sleep is essential to our health and well-being. Given the myriad of benefits associated with maintaining a healthy dose of sleep, it comes as no surprise that the Harvard Medical School Division of Sleep Medicine defines sleep as the “third pillar” of health, along with nutrition and exercise. Yet, while the health implications of proper nutrition and exercise are widely understood and discussed, “sleep is often misunderstood and neglected at a terrible cost on both the individual and societal levels.”
Fortunately, there is a very simple solution for avoiding these negative effects: getting more sleep! How much sleep we get is essentially a behavior each and every individual has influence over changing. As promoted by the National Sleep Foundation, developing healthy sleep habits can make a big difference in your quality of life. This includes going to bed at the same time each night and rising at the same time each morning, avoiding alcohol, caffeine, and large meals before bedtime, exercising daily, and abstaining from afternoon naps.
Ultimately, failing to fully appreciate the third of our lives we so often take for granted has grave consequences on our physical, mental, and financial health.
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Harvard Medical. (January, 2008) About the Healthy Sleep Web Site. Retrieved June 18th, 2014, from Harvard Medical School.
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NSF. (2014). Healthy Sleep Tips. Retrieved June 18th, 2014, from the National Sleep Foundation.