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7 Reasons Why Sleep is Critical to Our Health, Safety, Productivity, and Performance

“I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Sadly, that’s not just the title of the 1976 song by Warren Zevon. I hear comments like this from a lot of people who believe that sleep is overrated. They believe they have too much to do to worry about not getting enough sleep.

I get it. Even if you’re not getting enough sleep, you’re still likely spending more than 40 hours a week in bed. That’s a lot of time when you have so much to do. No wonder people think that sleep is a waste of time. But, it’s not.

Getting adequate sleep isn’t just about feeling rested. Sleep plays an essential role in keeping us healthy and successful in our career – as well as helping us to live a long life.

Here are 7 reasons why adequate sleep is critical:

#1 Sleep loss affects our safety

Would you ever go to work drunk? I hope not.

But, research shows that after being awake for just 18 hours, your cognitive psychomotor performance (in other words, how your brain and body work together) diminishes to that of someone with a blood alcohol level of 0.05%. In other words, after being awake for 18 hours your performance becomes similar to someone who’s quite inebriated.

Let’s think about that. Eighteen hours is like waking up at 6AM and staying up till midnight (and haven’t we all done this?). And, by the way, staying awake a bit longer decreases your performance even more.

Sleep is like a tune-up for the brain, sleep-deprived individuals tend to make more errors of judgement. But, it’s not just about an inappropriate email or ill-spoken words. Sometimes that lack of performance can cost lives.

According to the National Sleep Foundation yearly polls, 1/3 of us say that in the past month we got sleepy at work, maybe even nodded off on our drive home.

And we’re not the only ones. Twenty percent of pilots say they had a "near miss" due to sleepiness. The numbers are similar for train operators (18%) and truck drivers (14%). And a 2012 report by the WHO identified fatigue as one of the causes of medical errors and injury in healthcare.

Many tragic accidents happen at night. It’s been said that sleep deprivation played a role in the Exxon Valdez spill, Three Mile Island accident, and the 1986 Challenger explosion.

Frankly, that scares me – because I’m concerned that people who don’t respect the power of sleep end up causing havoc to themselves or perhaps injury and death of others.

#2 Sleep loss affects our workplace performance

As an expert in fatigue management and workplace productivity, I took a deep dive into the science of sleep when I wrote my latest book, REBOOT – how to power up your energy, focus, and productivity. And I found that sleep loss can even affect our day-to-day performance at work and at home. That’s because sleep functions like a major defrag for the brain – helping us to think clearly, react quickly, problem solve, and creatively brainstorm.

I often work with clients who work 11-12 hours a day. Many say they get just 4-6 hours of sleep. And I don’t think they realize how much lack of sleep affects their performance.

One study randomized well-rested healthy adults to either 8, 6, or 4 hours sleep/night for 14 consecutive days.

Not surprisingly:

  • those getting 4 or 6 hours of sleep reported more sleepiness than those getting 8 hours of sleep
  • those getting 4 or 6 hours of sleep also reported significant performance deficits …compared to those getting 8 hours of sleep…that went down as the days went on

What I found surprising is that …Those getting just 4 hours of sleep a night didn’t report any more sleepiness than those getting 6 hours of sleep…even though their performance was worse.

After some catch up sleep, the subjects also went through a three-day sleep deprivation period. The researchers found that day 10 of getting 6 hours of sleep, their performance was similar to their performance when they stayed awake for 2 days straight!

We all know people who get little sleep Monday through Friday, and then catch up on the weekend. Does that weekend sleep help?

Consider this study in which participants got just 4 hours in bed for 5 days. And then were allowed recovery sleep. This helped greatly with neurobehavioral deficits. BUT the researchers found that even after 10 hours in bed, some of those deficits were still evident.

#3 Sleep loss affects productivity

In writing my white paper called, “Fatigue in the Workplace”,  I found that fatigue is costing businesses $92 billion a year in the US AND $508 billion a year globally due to accidents/incidences, lost productivity, and healthcare costs.

Sleep deprived individuals are twice as likely to miss work due to short term AND long-term sickness. Fatigue is also strong predictor of permanent work disability.

When I ask the sleep-deprived C-suite executives that I work with, if they feel sleepy, most say they do fine during the day…it’s only when they get home that they feel sleepy.

My guess is that they’re so jacked up on caffeine – and adrenaline from the stress at work, that they don’t even realize how sleepy they really are.

#4 Sleep loss may be related to your weight gain

Want to lose weight? It may be as simple as getting more sleep.

Research suggests there’s a reciprocal relationship between sleep and weight. Up to a point, the more sleep we get, the less likely we are to be obese. In other words, improving your sleep may improve your weight.

The Québec Family Study, a 6-year study involving 276 adults, suggests that 7-8 hours of sleep may be optimal for weight control. This is true whether measuring weight, waist circumference, or body fat percentage.

BTW Sleeping more than nine hours a night usually isn’t helpful. Perhaps because long sleep may be the sign of an underlying condition, such as depression.

What factors are involved with weight gain associated with sleep deprivation? There are many explanations:

  • When we don’t get enough sleep, we are often too tired to exercise…so perhaps we’re expending fewer calories.
  • The less we sleep, the more opportunity we have to eat…and when we’re tired, we tend to reach for food, perhaps in the illusive search for energy.
  • And not getting enough sleep can mess with our hunger/satiety hormones so we either feel more hungry or we feel less full. Either way, these hormones prompt us to eat more than we would if we were well-rested.

In one study, it was found that obese men/women ate 83 calories more for each 30-minute decrease in sleep. Think about that – 83 calories extra a day doesn’t sound like much. But, over a full year that adds up to a weight gain of eight pounds.

#5 Too little sleep has been associated with many medical conditions including diabetes

Did you know that nearly 46% of the US adult population has either diabetes or prediabetes? (9% diabetes, 37% prediabetes). As a registered dietitian, I always asked my clients with diabetes about their sleep patterns. That’s because when one doesn’t get enough sleep, even for a few days, it can result in an increase in fasting glucose and a decrease in insulin sensitivity.

That’s why it’s thought that not getting enough sleep increases the risk for type 2 diabetes 2-3 fold! Short sleep doesn’t just increase the risk of weight gain and insulin resistance. It also increases blood pressure and levels of bad blood cholesterol.

#6 Sleep loss may bring on early aging

People are always asking me what they should be eating or what supplements they can take to prevent dementia as we age. And my answer is always: GET MORE SLEEP!

In the Whitehall II study, lasting more than five years, compared with 7 hours of sleep, those getting 6 hours or less was associated with poor cognitive function in men over 60….equivalent to a 3-5 year increase in age.

#7 Sleep loss affects our immune system

Mom was right. Sleep is also critical to help us to fight disease and recover from injury. About 1-2% of the body’s cells breaks down daily and needs to be repaired or replaced. And much of that happens during sleep when the growth hormone levels are highest.

Stress hormones are lowest in the evening...so our white blood cells can more effectively do their job. When we kids were growing up, and we didn’t feel well, Mom simply told us to “go to bed.” Sometimes getting more sleep is the best thing we can do for our health – and let the body do the healing.

So, there you go – 7 reason why not getting enough sleep can affect our safety, performance, productivity, weight, and overall health.

Generally, 7-8 of sleep is considered optimal, but it’s different for different people. Are YOU getting enough sleep?

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