While You Weren’t Sleeping: 7 Things You Didn’t Know About Sleep Deprivation

As we get older, we learn new methods to improve our health. We eat expert-recommended diets to improve our energy level. We take special medications to regulate our hormones and anxiety levels. We sign up for special workout programs to maintain our ideal weight. However, sometimes, improving our health is as simple as doing more of something we’ve known how to do since we were infants: sleeping.

“Getting enough sleep improves your health, strengthens your immune system, improves your mood, and boosts productivity,” said Kristen Knutson, National Sleep Foundation Poll Fellow. “Improving sleep in various demographics could make a positive impact on public health.”

Your mom probably told you, “You need your sleep!” And she was right. Here are seven science-backed things you probably didn’t know about sleep deprivation.

1. YOU might be sleep deprived

Nearly half of Americans report that they’re not getting enough sleep—or their sleep quality is poor—and it’s affecting the quality of life, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Only one-third of adults sleep eight hours per night per the World Health Organization recommendation. Feeling tired? Put down that coffee! You might just need a few more hours of shut-eye per night.

2. Men and women have different sleep disorder risk factors

Men are more likely to report snoring and get diagnosed with sleep apnea. Women, however, are more likely to report difficulty falling and staying asleep and get diagnosed with insomnia, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

3. Your brain makes decisions while you’re asleep

OK, it’s not like your brain is applying for graduate programs while you’re asleep. But while you might not remember much about the hours you spend asleep, your brain is actually quite active during this time. A study published in the journal Current Biology indicates that “complex stimuli can not only be processed while we sleep but [also] that this information can be used to make decisions, similarly as when we’re awake,” Thomas Andrillon and Sid Kouider write. Maybe there’s a good reason that people say they’re going to “sleep on” big decisions before they make them.

4. For some, needing sleep has been stigmatized

Leading neuroscientist Matthew Walker, a sleep scientist, says some people seem to view sleeping as lazy. People want to seem busy and productive, so either they sleep less, or they try to make is sound like they sleep less. “Humans are the only species that deliberately deprive themselves of sleep for no apparent reason,” Walker said.

5. Sleep deprivation can make you gain weight

While it might sound counterintuitive, sleeping more might help you maintain a healthy weight. Restricting your sleep not only increases appetite and stress hormones but also decreases your body’s ability to metabolize sugar. Next time you notice your pants are getting a little snug, don’t just start researching gym memberships—pay attention to how much sleep you’re getting, too.

6. Lack of sleep increases instances of car accidents

Driver fatigue has caused nearly 1.35 million car accidents in the United States in the past five years, according to the Harvard Business Review. If you’re awake for more than 18 hours in a row—say, from 6 a.m. to midnight—”your reaction speed, short-term and long-term memory, ability to focus, decision-making capacity, math processing, cognitive speed, and spatial orientation all start to suffer,” Bronwyn Fryer writes. We’ve probably all claimed at some point that we “don’t have time to sleep more,” but is it really worth the risk?

7. Alcohol consumption negatively impacts sleep

A lot of people drink a glass of wine before bed to fall asleep, but while you might fall asleep faster, in the long-run, this habit actually decreases sleep quality. Consuming alcohol before bed can interrupt your circadian rhythm, prevent the most restorative type of sleep, increase breathing problems, and lead to nighttime trips to the bathroom, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

Prescribing and prioritizing sleep

Walker believes that sleep loss is linked to Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and poor mental health. “No aspect of our biology is left unscathed by sleep deprivation,” he says. “. . . When did a doctor prescribe, not sleeping pills, but sleep itself? It needs to be prioritized, even incentivized.”

What can you do to prioritize sleep for yourself and your family?


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