By Dr. Mercola
Lack of sleep can make you irritable, foggy-headed, and moody, but it’s also a veritable disaster waiting to happen. For starters, the neural processes that control alertness and sleep produce an increased tendency toward sleep – along with a diminished capacity to function – during some late-night hours (namely from 2 a.m. to 7 a.m.).
This also happens, to a lesser degree, between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. What’s especially noteworthy about this is these sleepy periods occur whether or not you’ve gotten proper sleep… and the effects only intensify if you have not.1 When you forgo sleep, either intentionally or otherwise, your body may be able to cope somewhat initially.
And many people use stimulants or physical activity to fight sleepiness. But sleep loss is cumulative, and the longer you go without proper sleep, the higher the likelihood of tragic error becomes.
At first you might be able to fool your body into believing you can function normally, but as reported in the journal Sleep, as soon as you let your guard down, overwhelming sleepiness ensues.
“Such unawareness may account for seemingly incomprehensible instances in which individuals have permitted themselves to sleep in circumstances that cause great hazard for themselves and others. Thus, the more sleep is disturbed or reduced, for whatever reason, the more likely an individual will inadvertently slip into sleep.
There is laboratory evidence to suggest that even brief episodes of sleep, called ‘microsleeps,’ produce inattention, forgetfulness, and performance lapses, particularly during the two zones of vulnerability within the 24-h cycle.”
Sleep Deprivation Leads to Blunted Reactions
Sleep deprivation has played a role in many catastrophic events, and researchers recently looked into this effect, specifically in regard to how sleep loss affects decision-making. Participants underwent two nights of total sleep deprivation followed by two nights of recovery sleep, then performed a decision-making test.2
A well-rested control group (who had slept normally) performed better on the tests than the sleep-deprived group. Particularly revealing was when the rules for the test were reversed… and none of the sleep-deprived volunteers got the right answer, even after 40 tries. The study’s lead author told NPR:3
"It wasn't just that sleep-deprived people were slower to recover… Their ability to take in new information and adjust was completely devastated."
The researchers concluded that sleep deprivation is particularly problematic for decision-making involving uncertainty and unexpected change. They concluded:
“Blunted reactions to feedback while sleep deprived underlie failures to adapt to uncertainty and changing contingencies. Thus, an error may register, but with diminished effect because of reduced affective valence of the feedback or because the feedback is not cognitively bound with the choice.
This has important implications for understanding and managing sleep loss-induced cognitive impairment in emergency response, disaster management, military operations, and other dynamic real-world settings with uncertain outcomes and imperfect information.”
Major Disasters Caused by Lack of Sleep
Sleep deprivation leads to accidents both big and small, some of which prove to be fatal. For instance, according to the documentary “Sleepless in America,” diagnostic mistakes shot up by 400 percent among doctors who had worked for 24 consecutive hours.
Sleep-deprived medical residents also reported a 73 percent increase in self-inflicted needle sticks and scalpel stabs, and when driving home from work, they had a 170 percent increased risk of having a serious motor vehicle accident.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that drowsy driving results in 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injuries, and more than 100,000 accidents each year.4
And when a sleep-deprived person is in charge of an airplane, a space shuttle, a train, a nuclear power plant, or an oil supertanker, the death toll rises… some of the most catastrophic disasters related to sleep deprivation include:5
When the Chernobyl reactor melted down in 1986, approximately 134 plant workers and firefighters were exposed to high doses of radiation – 800 to 16,000 mSv – and developed acute radiation sickness. Of those 134 workers, 28 died within 3 months of exposure.
In total, more than 160,000 children and 146,000 cleanup workers became victims of radiation poisoning as a result of living and working in that radiotoxic environment, raising the incidence of birth defects, leukemia, anemia, cancers, thyroid disease, liver and bone marrow degeneration, and overall severely compromised immune systems.
These, however, are only estimates, and according to some data, Chernobyl deaths may actually top 1 million.6 The engineers involved in the disaster had worked 13 hours or more before the meltdown.
2. Three-Mile Island
Early one morning in 1979, the nuclear plant on Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania began losing coolant. It was between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m., and the workers didn’t notice until the core had significantly overheated and melted. The incident was attributed to “human error due to sleep deprivation.”
3. The Challenger Explosion
The space shuttle Challenger exploded after its launch in January 1986, killing all seven on board. Managers involved in the launch had slept just two hours before reporting to work at 1 a.m., and the Presidential Commission on the accident noted:
"The willingness of NASA employees in general to work excessive hours, while admirable, raises serious questions when it jeopardizes job performance, particularly when critical management decisions are at stake."
4. The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
In 1989, the Exxon Valdez supertanker ran aground in Alaska, spilling 258,000 barrels of crude oil into the environment. The crew had just finished a 22-hour shift loading the oil, and the ship’s third mate was asleep at the helm when the tanker ran aground.
Health Consequences of Too Little Sleep
Disruptions to sleep tend to cascade outward throughout your entire body. For example, during sleep your brain cells also shrink by about 60 percent, which allows for more efficient waste removal.7
Sleep is also intricately tied to important hormone levels, including melatonin, production of which is disturbed by lack of sleep. This is extremely problematic, as melatonin inhibits the proliferation of a wide range of cancer cell types, as well as triggers cancer cell apoptosis (self-destruction).
Lack of sleep also decreases levels of your fat-regulating hormone leptin while increasing the hunger hormone ghrelin. The resulting increase in hunger and appetite can easily lead to overeating and weight gain.
Separate research also found that when participants cut their sleep from 7.5 to 6.5 hours a night, there were increases in activity in genes associated with inflammation, immune excitability, diabetes, cancer risk, and stress.8 Poor or insufficient sleep was even found to be the strongest predictor for pain in adults over 50.9 Interrupted or impaired sleep can also:
- Increase your risk of heart disease and cancer
- Harm your brain by halting new neuron production. Sleep deprivation can increase levels of corticosterone (a stress hormone), resulting in fewer new brain cells being created in your hippocampus
- Contribute to a pre-diabetic, insulin-resistant state, making you feel hungry even if you've already eaten, which can lead to weight gain
- Contribute to premature aging by interfering with your growth hormone production, normally released by your pituitary gland during deep sleep (and during certain types of exercise, such as high-intensity interval training)
- Increase your risk of dying from any cause
Energy Drinks Are Not the Answer
Trying to counteract the effects of sleep deprivation with an energy drink isn’t a wise choice. For starters, your body won’t be fooled. While you might get a temporary energy boost, the negative effects of sleep deprivation are still lurking. Consuming large quantities of caffeine and other stimulants in energy drinks can have serious health consequences as well, especially in children and teens, including caffeine toxicity, stroke, anxiety, arrhythmia, and in some rare cases death.
Drinking energy drinks has also been compared to “bathing” teeth in acid because of their impact on your tooth enamel.10 If you’re feeling fatigued in the afternoon, try a quick nap. The “ideal” nap time appears to be around 20 minutes (any longer and you’ll enter the deeper stages of sleep and may feel groggy when you wake up). If afternoon fatigue is a regular issue for you, one of the most common causes is post-lunch hypoglycemia, which is related to your inability to effectively burn fat.
By switching your body over from primarily burning carbs to primarily burning fats for fuel or becoming “fat adapted,” you virtually eliminate such drops in energy levels. To switch to fat-burning mode, you’ll need to swap out unhealthy carbs (i.e. non-vegetable carbs) with healthy fats, which include the following. Intermittent fasting can also help you switch from carb- to fat-burning mode.
Olives and olive oil (for cold dishes) Coconuts, and coconut oil (for all types of cooking and baking) Butter made from raw grass-fed organic milk Raw nuts, such as almonds or pecans Organic pastured egg yolks Avocados Pasture-finished meats Palm oil Unheated organic nut oils
How to Become a Better Sleeper: Know When to Turn Off the Lights
One of the greatest plights of modern-day sleep is the introduction of light-emitting electronic devices to the bedroom. Research shows that 90 percent of Americans use an electronic device within an hour of going to bed, and this is associated with poor sleep.11 A study also compared the use of an iPad for four hours before bed (for five consecutive nights) to reading a print book for the same period.12 There were significant biological effects of iPad use before bed, including:13
- Reduced secretion of melatonin, a hormone that induces sleepiness
- Delayed circadian rhythm of more than an hour
- Feeling less sleepy before bedtime
- Feeling sleepier and less alert the following morning, even after eight hours of sleep
- Spending less time in REM sleep
One of the study’s authors noted: "We found the body's natural circadian rhythms were interrupted by the short-wavelength enriched light, otherwise known as blue light, from these electronic devices."
The blue light emitted from electronics such as cell phones, tablets, 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.
Last year, I interviewed Dan Pardi on the topic of how to get restorative, health-promoting sleep. Pardi is 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.
In addition to avoiding blue light at night, be careful with turning on bright lights in the bathroom if you’re brushing your teeth before bed or using the bathroom in the middle of the night. Pardi also 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. If you can’t get outdoors in the morning, try turning on your indoor lighting, which should have a similar ambient brightness to a sunrise.14 Once the sun has set, the converse applies. After sunset you want to avoid light as much as possible in order for your body to secrete melatonin, which helps you feel sleepy.
Go to Sleep Earlier… and Other Healthy Sleep Tips
To optimize sleep, you need to make sure you’re going to bed early enough. If you have to get up at 6:30 a.m., you’re just not going to get enough sleep if you go to bed after midnight. Many fitness trackers can now track both daytime body movement and sleep, allowing you to get a better picture of how much sleep you’re actually getting.
Newer fitness trackers like Jawbone’s UP3, which should be released later this year, can even tell you which activities led to your best sleep and what factors resulted in poor sleep. In addition, to achieve more restful, restorative sleep, I suggest you read through my full set of 33 healthy sleep guidelines for all of the details, but to start, consider implementing the following changes:
- Avoid watching TV or using your computer in the evening, at least an hour or so before going to bed. As mentioned, these devices emit blue light, which tricks your brain into thinking it's still daytime. Normally, your brain starts secreting melatonin between 9 pm and 10 pm, and these devices emit light that may stifle that process. Even the American Medical Association now states:15
“…nighttime electric light can disrupt circadian rhythms in humans and documents the rapidly advancing understanding from basic science of how disruption of circadian rhythmicity affects aspects of physiology with direct links to human health, such as cell cycle regulation, DNA damage response, and metabolism.”
- Make sure you get BRIGHT sun exposure regularly. Your pineal gland produces melatonin roughly in approximation to the contrast of bright sun exposure in the day and complete darkness at night. If you are in darkness all day long, it can't appreciate the difference and will not optimize your melatonin production.
- Sleep in complete darkness, or as close to it as possible. The slightest bit of light in your bedroom can disrupt your body’s clock and your pineal gland's melatonin production. Even the tiniest glow from your clock radio could be interfering with your sleep, so cover your radio up at night or get rid of it altogether. Move all electrical devices at least three feet away from your bed. You may want to cover your windows with drapes or blackout shades. If this isn’t possible, wear an eye mask.
- Install a low-wattage yellow, orange, or red light bulb if you need a source of light for navigation at night. Light in these bandwidths does not shut down melatonin production in the way that white and blue bandwidth light does. Salt lamps are handy for this purpose. You can also download a free application called F.lux that automatically dims your monitor or screens.16
- Keep the temperature in your bedroom no higher than 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Many people keep their homes too warm (particularly their upstairs bedrooms). Studies show that the optimal room temperature for sleep is between 60 to 68 degrees F.
- Take a hot bath 90 to 120 minutes before bedtime. This increases your core body temperature, and when you get out of the bath it abruptly drops, signaling your body that you are ready to sleep.
- Avoid using loud alarm clocks. Being jolted awake each morning can be very stressful. If you are regularly getting enough sleep, you might not even need an alarm.
- Get some sun in the morning, if possible. Your circadian system needs bright light to reset itself. Ten to 15 minutes of morning sunlight will send a strong message to your internal clock that day has arrived, making it less likely to be confused by weaker light signals during the night. More sunlight exposure is required as you age.
- Be mindful of electromagnetic fields (EMFs) in your bedroom. EMFs can disrupt your pineal gland and its melatonin production, and may have other negative biological effects as well. A gauss meter is required if you want to measure EMF levels in various areas of your home. Ideally, you should turn off any wireless router while you are sleeping. You don’t need the Internet on when you are asleep.