We all know what it’s like to go through our day after a night with little or no sleep. You feel jittery, cranky and your brain feels foggy. You may function okay for the first few hours, but the extra effort that your brain must put into normal function starts to wear you down. Clear thinking and communication become impossible, and you may have the urge to crawl under your desk and pass out. Sometimes, we choose to go without sleep in order to cram for an exam or prepare for a big presentation at work. Unfortunately, you may actually inhibit your performance by forgoing adequate sleep.
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Sleep deprivation, even in small amounts, negatively affects our cognitive function. It impedes critical thinking, verbal fluency, planning, attention, working memory and coordination. So if you think staying up late to do more work will help you perform better, think again.
As a culture, we have tried to negate the importance of sleep, as if the need for a full night of sleep were a sign of weakness. But as research continues to show the negative effects of sleep deprivation on performance, the old mindset is slowly starting to change. Even some NBA teams have restructured their practice and travel schedules in order to give players more time for adequate amounts of sleep.
If you do miss a night of sleep, the good news is that your body will recover if you get plenty of sleep for the rest of the week. (Most research shows the optimal amount of sleep ranges from 7-9 hours depending on the individual). However, if your sleep deprivation is chronic, your body may not get enough recovery time.
Insomnia is something probably every adult has experienced in their lives. Statistically, a large portion of our population experiences it on a regular basis. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 63% of American women and 54% of American men experience insomnia a few days a week. When you read all of the information about the effects of sleep deprivation on the brain and the body, these statistics are a little alarming.
Several days of sleep shortage send the body’s stress response into overdrive, sending its regulatory systems into crisis. Studies show that this affects the body’s blood-glucose regulation and triggers insulin resistance. Over time this can lead to diabetes and hypertension. It can also lead to weight gain and even obesity. When the neurons of the hippocampus go into crisis mode, they stop producing nutrients (neurotrophins) which help create new neurons. This is detrimental to learning and the formation of memories. Research has also shown that certain stages of sleep, slow-wave, and specifically, REM sleep must occur in order for memories to be consolidated from short term to long term storage.
Causes of insomnia vary from person to person. Stress plays a huge part in many people’s sleep deprivation. Hormone shifts as people age have also been shown to affect sleep patterns. Millions of Americans receive prescriptions for sleeping pills each year, but these products are only meant to provide temporary relief. So, is there a solution? Just as causes vary for each individual, so do solutions. Various lifestyle and behavioral changes are recommended, as well as seeking professional help with chronic sleep disturbances
Five Recommendations for Insomnia Treatment:
1. Use your bed only for sleep and sex. Also, don’t bring work or other stressful tasks into your bedroom. This may involve “unplugging” from your computer, blackberry, etc.
2. Watch what you eat and drink, and when you do it. Obviously caffeine is a big culprit, so you may want to reduce your intake. Also, eating late or eating things that trigger indigestion or acid reflux can inhibit sleep.
3. Find ways to deal with stress and reduce your body’s stress response. Yoga, meditation and exercise (as long as it’s not too close to bedtime), can be beneficial ways to reduce the impact of stress on your body. Also, alternative therapies like acupuncture and massage have been helpful for some people. Biofeedback or software products like emWave can be helpful stress management tools. If you are dealing with a difficult situation in your life, find a therapist or counselor that you can talk to and learn tools to cope with your situation. Continuing to lose sleep will only make your response to the circumstances worse and exacerbate the situation.
4. Prepare for sleep. Starting turning the lights down in the evening, adjust the temperature in your bedroom to a comfortable level and choose relaxing activities before going to bed (take a bath or read for fun. Be careful if you watch TV or movies before bed. These can be over-stimulating). If light or noise affects your sleep, find ways to buffer the impact of these disturbances. Use earplugs, white noise machines or fans, and use a sleep mask or shades on your windows to block early morning light if necessary.
5. Seek professional help for chronic sleep issues. Sleep clinics can diagnose physiological problems like sleep apnea, upper airway resistance syndrome and restless leg syndrome, and offer treatment. If physiological issues are not the cause, you may want to seek out Behavior Sleep Therapy. The body can develop negative habits and actually forget how to sleep properly. Behavior therapy for sleep disorders works to retrain the body to sleep. Treatments can include sleep restriction, psychotherapy, stimulus control therapy and relaxation training.