The Surprising Dangers Of Sleep Deprivation

businessman asleep on desk( — How much sleep is enough? Is how sleepy you feel a good judge of whether or not you are getting enough sleep? If you get less sleep than some ideal amount but you feel fine, could you be damaging your health anyway? Are we getting less than we used to?

Recent research provides some surprising answers:

We’re Not Getting As Much Sleep As We Used To

Adults typically need seven to nine hours of sleep each night to feel fully rested and function at their best. However, Americans are getting less sleep than they did in the past. A 2005 National Sleep Foundation poll found that Americans averaged 6.9 hours of sleep per night, which represents a drop of about two hours per night since the 19th century, one hour per night over the past 50 years, and about 15 to 25 minutes per night just since 2001.

The Unconscious Effects Of Sleep Disorders

Unfortunately, we are not very good at perceiving the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania restricted volunteers to less than six hours in bed per night for two weeks. The volunteers perceived only a small increase in sleepiness and thought they were functioning relatively normally. However, formal testing showed that their cognitive abilities and reaction times progressively declined during the two weeks.

By the end of the two-week test, they were as impaired as subjects who had been awake continuously for 48 hours.

Why & How Does A Lack Of Sleep Hurt Us?

Not getting enough sleep changes the body’s secretion of some hormones. The changes promote appetite, reduce the sensation of feeling full after a meal, and alter the body’s response to sugar intake—changes that can promote weight gain and increase the risk of developing diabetes.

Since then, multiple epidemiological studies have shown that people who chronically get too little sleep are at greater risk of being overweight and developing diabetes. These studies have shown that the shorter the sleep, the higher the likelihood of being overweight, with those getting six to seven hours of sleep more than two and a half times as likely to be overweight as those getting more than eight hours.

The likely connection between sleep deprivation and obesity comes on top of previous research linking sleep deprivation with increased risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.

Undoing The Damage

The good news is that these effects can be reversed by getting an adequate amount of sleep. The University of Chicago study on sleep duration and appetite found that allowing the study subjects to sleep 10 hours for two consecutive nights returned the hormones to normal levels and lowered hunger and appetite ratings by almost 25 percent.

Yes, today there are simply too many tempting opportunities to avoid sleep…heavy work loads, electronic devices, television, video games, etc. But it’s important to recognize the importance of sleep, and to make getting more of it a priority.

Just remember: It is a lot easier to prevent weight gain, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease by taking simple steps, such as getting enough sleep, than it is to treat these problems once they develop.