Fascinating Facts about Sleeping – How Does Sleep Affect Our Health?


Most of us, if not everyone, loves a good night’s sleep, but for many that satisfying refreshing sleep has become an elusive luxury.  If you’ve experienced a few sleepless nights you will be familiar with the feeling of daytime drowsiness and not being quite ‘with it’.  Searching through some studies and clinical trials on sleeplessness I was astounded by the number of ways that lack of sleep can affect us.

Who wants to be in hospital under the care of a doctor who is working long, long hours as some of them have to?  Horrifyingly, it was reported in 2004 in the New England Journal of Medicine that interns who worked extensively and slept little make 36% more serious medical errors than those who were able to take more sleep.  Better check your doctor’s sleeping record before he operates or it might mean he leaves his scalpel inside you or takes out your gall bladder instead of your appendix! After evaluating surgical malpractice in the United States, researchers estimated that each week surgeons leave a foreign object like a sponge or towel inside a patient’s body after an operation 39 times, operate on the wrong body site 20 times and perform the wrong procedure on a patient 20 times. Scary stuff!

Have you seen traffic department signs warning you to pull over if you feel sleepy? They’re onto it! A 2000 study found that sleep deprivation renders us as unable to drive safely as those who are intoxicated...  In fact, seventeen hours of sustained wakefulness leads to a decrease in performance equivalent to a blood alcohol level of 0.05% and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of USA conservatively attributes 1550 deaths each year to driver fatigue. This can play out on a much larger level too. The Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska, the Challenger space shuttle disaster and the Chernobyl nuclear accident have all been attributed to human errors in which sleep deprivation played a role.

For those who carefully watch how many glasses of wine they imbibe so they can safely drive home be warned. Studies have shown that after five nights of not getting enough sleep we become more susceptible to the effects of alcohol so that three drinks will have the same effect as six would have normally. So if you’re out on the town and not been sleeping well, organise a designated driver.

Feel like an alien if you don’t get enough sleep?  Several studies show that sleep loss reduces our ability to interact socially. Using emotional facial recognition tests the studies found that lack of sleep reduced our emotional empathy and the ability to recognize expressions of anger and happiness.

Do you watch your fat intake and walk briskly four days a week and eat lots of greens to make sure your heart stays healthy? Well better add a good night’s sleep to that list as well.  A review of fifteen studies on sleeping and lack thereof found that there is a far greater risk of heart disease and stroke for people who sleep less than seven to eight hours a night.

Lack of sleep is also linked to the risk of type 2 diabetes. In many clinical trials it has been shown that even a week of lack of sleep or sleeping less than six hours a night produces an inability to synthesise glucose, presenting a pre-diabetic state which is a huge risk factor for diabetes

Subjects must have been paid well for the immune function study performed in 2008 where nasal drops of the common cold virus were administered to otherwise healthy adults. One group were sleep deprived and a control group had a good night’s sleep. Not surprisingly they found that those who slept less than seven hours had a three times higher susceptibility to coming down with the cold. This conclusion has also been corroborated in other studies where a correlation between lower immune response and lack of sleep.

Sleep deprivation has also been clinically observed to be strongly linked to inflammatory conditions of the bowel, like Crohn’s disease and colitis.

Children who are sleep deprived seem to react quite differently to sleep deprived adults. Whereas adults can get quite groggy and listless children seem to go more towards hyperactivity.  In fact a 2009 study reported in the journal Pediatrics found that children ages seven and eight who got less than about eight hours of sleep a night were more likely to be hyperactive, inattentive and impulsive.

Now for the grand finale of sleep! As if health problems throughout our life aren’t bad enough: apparently people who experience lack of regular sleep have a higher chance of dying earlier than their snoozy friends. In a meta-analysis of 15 previous studies, it was found that people who regularly get less than five hours a night are at a twelve percent higher risk of an early death.  But don’t go overboard with your sleep. It was also found that those who regularly sleep more than ten hours have an even higher risk of an early death.

In this self-esteem biased, weight conscious and body image obsessed world that we live in, some may argue that eventual death is less frightening than being overweight, so take note: sleep deprivation drives us to eat more calories. Science informs us that lack of sleep produces more of a hormone called ghrelin which tells us we are hungry and need to eat.  Not only that, but lack of sleep influences us to produce less leptin which is the hormone which tells us when we are full and to stop eating. Eeeek, more ghrelin and less leptin are a rich combination for weight gain.

So it seems that if we want to have a happy, long and healthy lifestyle one thing we need to do is get a good night’s sleep. And if we can’t?  Well try and make the best of your waking hours like prominent leaders Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and Barak Obama who took about four hours sleep each night. Or like billionaire Donald Trump who averages three to four hours each night. Thomas Edison also slept minimal hours, and during his waking hours developed technology that has contributed to the sleepless nights of countless others – the electric light bulb.  Diaries from the pre-electric-light-globe Victorian era show adults slept nine to ten hours a night with periods of rest changing with the seasons in line with sunrise and sunsets.  We just need to lead a simple life…Ahh back to nature must be the answer!

1. N Engl J Med. 2004 Oct 28; 351(18):1838-48.

Effect of reducing interns’ work hours on serious medical errors in intensive care units.

Landrigan CP, Rothschild JM, Cronin JW, Kaushal R, Burdick E, Katz JT, Lilly CM, Stone PH, Lockley SW, Bates DW, Czeisler CA.

2. Occup Environ Med. 2000 Oct;57(10):649-55.

Moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication.

Williamson AM, Feyer AM.

http://drowsydriving.org/ National Sleep Foundation


The National Sleep Research Project – 40 amazing facts about sleepwww.abc.net.au/science/sleep/facts.htm

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