By Dr. Mercola
Sleep deprivation is a serious health concern that many simply choose to ignore. The price for doing so can be steep. Research tells us that lack of sleep can contribute to everything from diabetes, obesity, and heart disease to physical aches and pains and irreversible brain damage.
In one recent animal study,1 sleep deprived mice lost 25 percent of the neurons located in their locus coeruleus, a nucleus in the brainstem associated with wakefulness and cognitive processes. The research also showed that "catching up" on sleep on the weekend will not prevent this damage.
Other research published in the journal Neurobiology of Aging2 suggests that people with chronic sleep problems may develop Alzheimer's disease sooner than those who sleep well.
If you're cutting down on sleep in order to get ahead in your career while juggling a household and your kids' jam-packed schedules, such findings should give you pause. As noted in a recent article in The Atlantic:3
"For some, sleep loss is a badge of honor, a sign that they don't require the eight-hour biological reset that the rest of us softies do. Others feel that keeping up with peers requires sacrifice at the personal level—and at least in the short-term, sleep is an invisible sacrifice."
The Cult of Manly Wakefulness
According to the 2013 International Bedroom Poll by the National Sleep Foundation,4 25 percent of Americans report having to cut down on sleep due to long workdays.
On average, Americans get only 6.5 hours of sleep on weeknights, but report needing 7.25 hours in order to function optimally. Canadians fare slightly better in this regard. On average, Canadians get just over seven hours of sleep per night, which brings them closer to the amount needed to function at their best.
Another recent survey5 of the sleeping habits of Britons revealed that nearly six out of 10 people get less than seven hours of sleep per night. This is a surprisingly dramatic rise from 2013 data, which showed that a little less than four out of 10 people slept less than seven hours nightly.
Modern man's penchant for equating sleep with unproductiveness (if not outright laziness) can be traced back to the heyday of Thomas Edison, who was known for working at all hours and shunning sleep. As noted in the featured article:6
"As Derickson writes in his book Dangerously Sleepy: Overworked Americans and the Cult of Manly Wakefulness, 'Edison spent considerable amounts of his own and his staff's energy on in publicizing the idea that success depended in no small part in staying awake to stay ahead of the technological and economic competition.'
No one, Derickson argues, 'did more to frame the issue as a simple choice between productive work and unproductive rest…' Over time, children's books and magazines began to promote this type of Edisonian asceticism... Edison encouraged all Americans to follow his lead, claiming that sleeping eight hours a night was a waste and even harmful. 'There is really no reason why men should go to bed at all,' he said in 1914."
Today, science has established just how dangerously incorrect Edison's belief was. Sleep is actually imperative for physical and mental health,7 and as detailed in T.S. Wiley's book, Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar, and Survival, Americans are quite literally sick from being tired.
This culture of sleep deprivation started with the invention of the light bulb, and has only gotten worse with the proliferation of light-emitting electronics.
While some do sacrifice sleep on purpose, others have simply fallen victim to the modern lifestyle, which sets you up for daytime light deficiency, followed by too much light exposure at night. This disrupts your natural waking-sleeping cycle, and can easily lead to disrupted sleep at night and impaired wakefulness during the following day.
Acting Against Your Body Clock Can Lead to Serious Health Problems
According to sleep researchers,8 people now get one to two hours less sleep each night, on average, compared to 60 years ago. A primary reason for this is the proliferation of electronics, which also allows us to work (and play) later than ever before.
The blue light emitted from electronics such as TVs and computers suppresses your melatonin production, thereby preventing you from feeling sleepy. What you may not realize is that even if you don't feel sleepy, you need sleep. You've simply artificially disrupted your body clock; you have not in any way altered your body's biological needs. As noted by Oxford University Professor Russell Foster:9
"We are the supremely arrogant species; we feel we can abandon four billion years of evolution and ignore the fact that we have evolved under a light-dark cycle. And long-term, acting against the clock can lead to serious health problems."
For example, research shows that sleeping less than six hours per night more than triples your risk of high blood pressure, and women who get less than four hours of shut-eye per night double their chances of dying from heart disease.10 The following infographic, created by BigBrandBeds.co.uk, illustrates how your electronic gadgets wreak havoc on your sleep when used before bedtime.11
Your Body Is Programmed to Rise with the Sun, and Sleep When It's Dark
Maintaining a natural rhythm of exposure to sunlight during the day and darkness at night is one crucial foundational component of sleeping well. This was addressed in an interview with Dan Pardi, a researcher who works with the Behavioral Sciences Department at Stanford University and the Departments of Neurology and Endocrinology at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
The reason why light exposure during the daytime is so important is because it serves as the major synchronizer of your master body clock. This master clock is a group of cells in your brain called the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN). As a group, these nuclei synchronize to the light-dark cycle of your environment when light enters your eye. You also have other biological clocks throughout your body, and those clocks subsequently synchronize to your master clock.
To maintain healthy master clock timing, aim to adjust your light exposure to a more natural light rhythm, where you get bright light exposure during the day and limited blue light and bright light exposure once the sun sets. Pardi recommends getting at least 30-60 minutes of outdoor light exposure during daylight hours, in order to "anchor" your master clock rhythm. The ideal time to go outdoors is right around solar noon but any time during daylight hours is useful.
Once sun has set, the converse applies. Now, you want to avoid light as much as possible, in order for your body to secrete melatonin, which helps you feel sleepy. As mentioned earlier, modern technologies such as TVs and computer screens (including smartphones) emit blue light that your brain mistakes for sunlight. This is why electronic gadgets must be avoided at least an hour or so before bedtime, to allow your body to ready itself for sleep.
Download Interview Transcript
Other Helpful Tips to Improve Your Sleep
Besides maintaining a natural circadian rhythm, there are a number of additional ways to help improve your sleep if you're still having trouble. Below are half a dozen of my top guidelines for promoting good sleep. For a comprehensive sleep guide, please see my article "33 Secrets to a Good Night's Sleep."
- Avoid watching TV or using your computer or smartphone at night—or at least about an hour or so before bedtime—as these technologies can have a significantly detrimental impact on your sleep. TV and computer screens emit blue light, similar to daylight. This tricks your brain into thinking it's still daytime, thereby shutting down melatonin secretion. Under normal circumstances, your brain starts secreting melatonin during something called dim light melatonin onset. If the light in your environment doesn't dim, because of multiple artificial light sources, melatonin won't be released and this affects sleep timing, quantity, and quality.
- Sleep in darkness. Refrain from using night-lights, cover up your clock radio, cover your windows — I recommend using blackout shades or drapes, or use an eye mask—and don't turn on a light if you have to go to the bathroom at night. You don't need to sleep in complete darkness. The intensity of light needs to be at a certain level (different levels depending on the spectrum) to suppress melatonin production. Complete darkness is probably best, however.
- Keep the temperature in your bedroom less than 70 degrees F. Many people keep their bedrooms too warm. A reduction in core body temperature is a part of the sleep-initiation and sleep maintenance process. A room temperature that is too warm or too cool can prevent your core temperature from lowering to its ideal place for good sleep. Aim to keep your bedroom temperature between 60 to 68 degrees, and identify the best room temperature for you through trial and error.
- Take a hot bath or shower 30 minutes before bedtime. The hot bath increases your core body temperature, opening up the blood vessels in your limbs. When you get out of the bath, heat can leave your body easily (if the room temperature is cool), abruptly dropping your core body temperature, making you drowsy and ready for great sleep.
- Check your bedroom for electromagnetic fields (EMFs). These can disrupt your production of melatonin and serotonin, and may have other negative effects as well. To do this, you need a gauss meter. You can find various models online, starting around $50 to $200. Some experts even recommend pulling your circuit breaker before bed to shut down all power in your house.
- Move alarm clocks and other electrical devices away from your bed. If these devices must be used, keep them as far away from your bed as possible, preferably at least three feet. This serves at least two functions. First, it can be stressful to see the time when you can't fall asleep, or wake up in the middle of the night. Secondly, the glow from a clock radio could be enough to suppress melatonin production and interfere with your sleep. Cell phones, cordless phones, and their charging stations should ideally be kept three rooms away from your bedroom to prevent harmful EMFs.
Sleeping Well Is Part of a Healthy Lifestyle Plan
Remember, there's no glory in being sleep deprived. On the contrary, not sleeping is a risk factor for a wide array of health problems, including diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer's disease. Lack of sleep will also dampen both your creative and logical problem solving abilities, along with your brain's ability to form memories.
In fact, highly successful entrepreneurs such as Arianna Huffington who have chosen to ditch the status quo that equates sleep deprivation with productivity affirm that getting sufficient sleep makes them more creative and efficient. Hence they get more done in less time. They also make fewer mistakes. From that perspective, sleeping can be viewed as a valuable performance enhancement tool.
In order to sleep well on a regular basis, you have to have properly aligned circadian rhythms. If you don't, aspects of your waking/sleeping system will be working at the wrong time. So first and foremost, make sure to get daylight exposure, ideally around solar noon, for at least half an hour or more each day. A gadget that can be helpful in instances when you, for some reason, cannot get outside during the day is a blue-light emitter. Philips makes one called goLITE BLU. (You can find it on Amazon12 for less than $150.) It's a small light therapy device you can keep on your desk. Use it twice a day for about 15 minutes to help you anchor your circadian rhythm if you cannot get outdoors.
Then, in the evening, dim environmental lights and avoid the blue light wavelength. Use blue-blocking light bulbs, dim your lights with dimmer switches and turn off unneeded lights, and if using a computer, install blue light-blocking software like f.lux.13 Also keep in mind that digital alarm clocks with blue light displays could have a detrimental effect.