Evidence of the harmful effects of sleep deprivation continues to mount, writes John von Arnim.
Apart from being horrific catastrophes what do the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster and Chernobyl have in common. They were all caused by human error linked to sleep deprivation.
Not surprising when British sleep expert Dr Neil Stanley says that millions of us have become semi-somniacs, thanks to social networking, 24-hour Internet access and a cut-throat work culture.
According to the landmark report – Wake Up Australia: The Value of Healthy Sleep – Access Economics revealed that wakeful nights and groggy days cost the Australian economy $10.3 billion a year. Then there’s the enormous emotional and physical toll of work-related accidents, heart disease and depression caused by sleep debt problems. Worst of all, the NRMA estimates that one in six car accidents are caused by micro-sleeps and slowed reaction times behind the wheel.
It’s long been known that sleep deprivation causes more workplace accidents, even on the first day of daylight saving. Christopher Barnes, a management professor at Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business, says that sleep deprivation is also one of the main causes of lost productivity in offices. Monday is the biggest day for “cyber-loafing” at work, he says, because so many people take until midday to wake up properly.
A major new danger as more of us use Facebook, Twitter and email to communicate 24/7, says Barnes, is that sleep deprivation affects the part of the brain that governs behaviour. That’s why tired people are more irritable, rude, and fire off inappropriate responses without thinking. They also lie, cheat and steal more in the workplace. A good night’s sleep not only re-charges our body it also strengthens willpower, so the ability to resist temptation and bad behaviours is lowered.
How much sleep do you need? This used to be an easy question to answer but a raft of new and often contradictory research has revealed that the standard doctor’s advice of eight hours a day is only a generalisation. An American study conducted in the Arctic Circle during the 24 hour sunlight of the summer season allowed male workers to sleep and work according to their body clocks. Most of the men slept for 10 hours a day – similar to our closest relatives, chimpanzees and monkeys. While another US study found that eight hours of sound sleep temporarily impaired a person’s mental skills and that sleep inertia ( grogginess) on waking was as severe as that suffered after a heavy night’s drinking.
“You need to get what’s right for you, says Dr Neil Stanley. “Each person is an individual. It’s whatever you need to feel awake the next day. Anywhere from six to 11 hours is alright.”
Other researchers believe that it’s more a matter of how well you sleep, not how long. “Six hours of quality sleep is better than 10 hours of fitful sleep,” says Professor Jim Horne, director of the Sleep Research Centre at Loughborough University in the UK. Both men are also fans of power naps – 20 to 30 minute sleeps rather than an hour-long sessions – if you really can’t spare more time to stay in bed.
THE DAMAGE DONE
• Men aged 45 to 65 who only sleep five to six hours a night are nearly 40 per cent more likely to have heart problems than men of the same age who sleep eight hours a night.
• Sleep loss also interferes with the body ability to metabolise carbs, leading to high blood levels of glucose… and possible adult on-set diabetes.
• Chronic sleep deprivation may cause weight gain by affecting the way recently discovered hormones like leptin control the appetite. That’s why junk foods are more appealing when you are tired.
• Long-term sleep loss can also undermine your immune system, making you more susceptible to a wide variety of diseases from the common cold to cancer.
STEPS FOR BETTER SLEEP
• Never take work projects to bed. The mind associates tasks like completing tax forms as stress and keeps you awake longer.
• Avoid drinking alcohol close to bedtime. It’s an antidepressant and when your body starts to metabolize a few glasses of wine or beer, the digestive process wakes you up.
• Regular exercise releases stress and tension. But don’t jog or go to the gym too close to turning-in time or the opposite effect kicks in.
• Don’t eat spicy foods. Simple heartburn causes two million Australians to lose sleep.
• Social networking has become the biggest disrupter of sleep since Thomas Edison developed the electric light bulb. If you suffer from what’s known as “social jet lag”, it’s time to shut down the screens at an established time each night.