How Chronic Lack of Sleep Affects Economy, Productivity and Health

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Research shows adults need anywhere from seven to nine hours of quality sleep each night to maintain good health, yet recent research suggests at least one-third of American adults aren’t getting enough
  • Most people skimp on sleep because they view it as a means to increase productivity. However, the evidence clearly shows the opposite occurs
  • Sleep deprivation is costing the U.S. economy $411 billion each year in accidents and lost productivity — an amount equivalent to 2.28 percent of the gross domestic product
  • Healthy sleep consists of five stages, and you cycle through them four to five times during a healthy sleep cycle. All of these stages are important, and it’s important to cycle through them enough times each night
  • Some of the most harrowing accidents and monumental mistakes have occurred as a result of sleep deprivation, including the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident and the 1986 space shuttle Challenger explosion

By Dr. Mercola

In the short CNN Money segment above, Christine Romans talks to Arianna Huffington about the importance of sleep for health and productivity. Huffington, chairman, president and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post Media Group, is well-acquainted with the ramifications of sleep deprivation.

She collapsed from burnout in 2007, severely injuring herself in the process. Her path back to wellness and her renewed respect for sleep and other self-care imperatives are detailed in her book, "Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder."

As noted by Huffington, many still suffer under the collective delusion that "in order to succeed, you have to burn out." Forgoing sleep is a key part of the lifestyle that leads to burnout.

Huffington is now on a mission to change the culture that glorifies sleep deprivation. In 2016, she launched a new company called Thrive Global, the goal of which is to "turn sleeping well into the corporate world's most celebrated productivity tool," Fortune Magazine reports.1 Last year, she also published her book, "The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time."2

Are You Sleep Deprived?

Research shows adults need anywhere from seven to nine hours of quality sleep each night in order to maintain good health, yet recent research suggests at least 37 percent of American adults aren't getting a healthy amount of sleep.

Of the 12,755 participants in one recent sleep study,3 13 percent slept just five hours or less per night; 24 percent got six hours; 31 percent got seven hours; 26 percent slept for eight; and about 5 percent got nine or more hours of sleep each night.

These figures correlate well with data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which suggests 35 percent of Americans fail to get the minimum of seven hours of sleep per night.4

According to the American Sleep Association,5 up to 70 million Americans have a sleep disorder, nearly 40 percent unintentionally fall asleep during the day at least once a month and nearly 5 percent have nodded off at least once while driving.

Here’s another remarkable statistic: In his book, “Circadian Code: Lose Weight, Supercharge Your Energy and Sleep Well Every Night,” Dr. Satchin Panda points out that 25 percent of the U.S. nonmilitary workforce work the night shift, defined as having a job that requires you to stay awake for at least three hours between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. for more than 50 days a year (basically once a week).

That’s 1 in 4 working adults — just an enormous amount of people, who are paying for work with their health.

Sleep Deprivation Costs US $411 Billion in Lost Productivity Each Year

Most people skimp on sleep because they feel they have to "get things done." In other words, they see sleep deprivation as a means to increase productivity. However, the evidence clearly shows the folly of this approach, as what you end up with is the complete opposite.

In fact, recent research by the RAND Corporation shows sleep deprivation is costing the U.S. economy $411 billion each year in accidents and lost productivity — an amount equivalent to 2.28 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). An estimated 1.2 million working days are also lost.

The study,6 "Why Sleep Matters — The Economic Costs of Insufficient Sleep," is the first to actually quantify the economic impact of sleep deprived workers. Japan came in second place, with $138 billion in lost productivity (2.92 percent of GDP), followed by the U.K., Germany and Canada.

Sleep-deprived consumers are also shelling out $66 billion each year on sleep aids, including sleeping pills, devices geared toward improving sleep and sleep studies. Projections suggest this expenditure will reach $85 billion by 2021.7

Recommendations for Individuals, Employers and Public Authorities

The RAND paper includes a number of recommendations for individuals, employers and public authorities alike:

  • On an individual level, the authors suggest setting a consistent wake-up time, limiting your use of electronic devices before bedtime and establishing a regular exercise routine to help you sleep
  • Employers are advised to "Recognize the importance of sleep and the employer's role in its promotion; design and build brighter workspaces; combat workplace psychosocial risks; and discourage the extended use of electronic devices"
  • Recommendations for public authorities includes: "Support health professionals in providing sleep-related help; encourage employers to pay attention to sleep issues; and introduce later school starting times"

The Science of Sleep

The fact that the August issue of National Geographic8 was dedicated to the science of sleep is a sign Huffington's media crusade is starting to take root. Senior editor Robert Kunzig told CBS This Morning:

"Sleep is an undiscovered country that each one of us travels to every night … It's hugely important for our health in our daily lives — it's as important as food …"

As explained by Kunzig, sleep is not a single state. Healthy sleep consists of several stages, and you cycle through these stages four to five times during the nightly sleep cycle. As a result, you're progressively descending into deep sleep and ascending toward lighter states of sleep several times, and this cycling is tremendously important, both from a biological and psychological perspective.

During stages 1 and 2, your brain remains active as it begins the editing process where decisions are made about which memories to store and which to discard. During stages 3 and 4, you enter into a deeper, almost coma-like state, during which the actual physiological cleansing and detoxification processes in the brain9 take place.

Your brain cells actually shrink by about 60 percent during this deep sleep phase. This creates more space in-between the cells, giving your cerebrospinal fluid more space to flush out the debris. Lastly, in stage 5, you enter rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, where dreaming takes place.

All of these stages are important, and it's important to cycle through them enough times each night — especially the deeper stages. When stages 3 and 4 are missing, your brain gets clogged with debris associated with Alzheimer's disease and, indeed, sleep deprivation is a risk factor for severe dementia. As Huffington told National Geographic:10

"One of the metaphors I use is that sleep is like the laundry. You're not going to take out the laundry 10 minutes early to save time. You have to complete all the cycles in the washing machine. Our sleep cycles have to be completed too; otherwise we wake up and feel like wet and dirty laundry."

Sleep Deprivation and Monumental Mistakes

To learn more about the different stages of sleep, and why deep sleep and dreaming is so important, see "Using Sleep as a Tool for Creativity." One of the most immediate ramifications of sleep deprivation is poor mental functioning the next day. Indeed, some of the most harrowing accidents, monumental mistakes and miscalculations in judgment have occurred as a result of sleep deprivation.

As reported in the 1988 paper "Catastrophes, Sleep and Public Policy: Consensus Report," published in the journal Sleep:11

"[T]he committee examined available information on the timing and nature of one of the most serious recent incidents in the commercial nuclear power industry and of the NASA space shuttle program.

The most serious United States incident in a commercial nuclear power plant occurred at 4 a.m. on March 28, 1979, at the Three Mile Island plant unit 2 reactor in Pennsylvania. Between the hours of 4 and 6 a.m., shift workers failed to recognize the loss of core coolant water resulting from a stuck valve.

Although a mechanical problem precipitated the incident, it was chiefly this human error of omission and the subsequent flawed corrective action that caused the near meltdown of the reactor later that morning …

[The] report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident [also cited] the contribution of human error and poor judgment related to sleep loss and shiftwork during the early morning hours.

In describing the substantial sleep loss experienced by senior managers at Marshall Space Flight Center before the evening teleconference with Morton-Thiokol on January 27, 1986, the report stated that the decision to launch 'should have been based on engineering judgments. However, other factors may have impeded or prevented effective communication and exchange of information.'

The effect on managers of irregular working hours and insufficient sleep 'may have contributed significantly to the atmosphere of the teleconference at Marshall.' Certain key managers had obtained less than 2 hours sleep the night before and had been on duty since 1:00 a.m. that morning.

The report noted that 'time pressure, particularly that caused by launch scrubs and turnarounds, increased the potential for sleep loss and judgment errors' and that working 'excessive hours, while admirable, raises serious questions when it jeopardizes job performance, particularly when critical management decisions are at stake.'

A more typical early morning shiftwork error was also cited by the commission in its reporting of a previous near-catastrophic launch of the shuttle Columbia on January 6, 1986. Console operators at Kennedy Space Center inadvertently drained 18,000 pounds of liquid oxygen from the shuttle external tank within 5 minutes before scheduled launch.

The liquid oxygen loss went undetected until after the mission was canceled only 31 seconds before liftoff because of a secondary effect on the engine inlet temperature. Operator fatigue was reported 'as one of the major factors contributing to this incident.' The operators had been on duty for 11 hours. It was their 3rd day of working on a 12-hour night shift …

The Commission concluded, 'An evaluation by NASA of the consequences of work schedules should be conducted as part of its effort to reform its launch and operational procedures.'"

Consequences of Insufficient Sleep

The stories above should alert you to the severe consequences of insufficient sleep. If you're like most people, you probably didn't know sleep deprivation was a factor in the tragic Challenger disaster, which killed seven astronauts, including the first-ever civilian in space, just 73 seconds after liftoff. Clearly, trading work for sleep did nothing for NASA's bottom line that day, and impacted countless lives.

Please understand that getting less than six hours of sleep actually leaves you cognitively impaired and unfit for many tasks. In 2013, drowsy drivers caused 72,000 car accidents in which 800 Americans were killed and 44,000 were injured.12 This is more than died from those texting and drunk drivers combined.

Even a single night of sleeping only four to six hours can impact your ability to think clearly the next day. That said, unless you have a dangerous job, or drive to and from work, you probably won't put other people's lives at risk.

Your own life, however, remains at stake, especially if you get less than adequate sleep on a chronic basis. Here are several examples of health problems linked to insufficient sleep:

Reduced productivity and creativity, impaired memory and reduced ability to learn new things13 — Due to your hippocampus shutting down, you experience a 40 percent deficit in your brain with respect to its ability to make new memories when you're sleep-deprived.

Increased risk of neurological problems, ranging from depression to dementia and Alzheimer's disease14 — Your blood-brain barrier becomes more permeable with age, allowing more toxins to enter.15

This, in conjunction with reduced efficiency of the glymphatic system due to lack of sleep, allows for more rapid damage to occur in your brain, and this deterioration is thought to play a significant role in the development of Alzheimer's.

Increased risk of Type 2 diabetes — In one study,16 "excessive daytime sleepiness" increased the risk of Type 2 diabetes by 56 percent.

Decreased immune function — Research17 suggests deep sleep strengthens immunological memories of previously encountered pathogens. In this way, your immune system is able to mount a much faster and more effective response when an antigen is encountered a second time.

Increased risk of obesity.18,19

Increased risk of cancer — Tumors grow two to three times faster20 in laboratory animals with severe sleep dysfunctions. The primary mechanism thought to be responsible for this effect is disrupted melatonin production, a hormone with both antioxidant and anticancer activity.

Melatonin both inhibits the proliferation of cancer cells and triggers cancer cell apoptosis (self-destruction). It also interferes with the new blood supply tumors required for their rapid growth (angiogenesis).

Increased risk of high blood pressure, heart attacks and cardiovascular disease — Research has demonstrated that women who get less than four hours of sleep per night double their risk of dying from heart disease.21

In another study,22 adults who slept less than five hours a night had 50 percent more coronary calcium, a sign of oncoming heart disease, than those who regularly got seven hours.

Increased risk of osteoporosis.23

Increased risk of pain and pain-related conditions such as fibromyalgia — In one study, poor or insufficient sleep was the strongest predictor for pain in adults over 50.24

Increased susceptibility to stomach ulcers.25

Impaired sexual function.26

Impaired regulation of emotions and emotional perception27 — Your amygdala, one of your brain's centerpiece regions for generating strong emotional reactions, including negative ones, becomes about 60 percent more reactive than usual when you've slept poorly or insufficiently, resulting in increased emotional intensity and volatility.

Increased risk of depression and anxiety (including post-traumatic stress disorder), schizophrenia and suicide — In fact, research shows that the majority of patients with psychiatric conditions have problems with sleep or insomnia.28

Premature aging by interfering with growth hormone production, normally released by your pituitary gland during deep sleep.29

Increased risk of dying from any cause30 — Compared to people without insomnia, the adjusted hazard ratio for all-cause mortality among those with chronic insomnia was 300 percent higher.

The Importance of Unplugging

According to Huffington, we're on the cusp of a transformation, as mounting scientific evidence reveals the crucial importance of sleep. Gone are the days when the smartest people among us would proclaim sleep to be useless and the need for it a sign of laziness. Thomas Edison is perhaps the most well-known antisleep crusader, who famously declared sleep "a heritage from our cave days."31

However, while many now want to sleep more, they find it hard to do so. Two major environmental factors that keep sleep at bay are electric lighting indoors and out, and addictive electronic devices that inhibit melatonin production due to blue light emissions.

As noted by Huffington, shutting down all electronic devices well before bedtime and establishing a relaxing bedtime routine instead can make a huge difference.

The research32 is quite clear that people who use their computer for playing, surfing, or reading on the Web, or those who use their smartphones for the same purpose, as well as texting, are more likely to report symptoms of insomnia. Studies have also shown that:33

  • Children who use electronic media at night go to bed later, get fewer hours of sleep per week, and report more daytime sleepiness
  • Adolescents with a television in their bedroom go to bed later, have more difficulty falling asleep, and have a shorter total sleep time
  • Sending texts or emails after initially going to bed increases daytime sleepiness among teens (even if it's done only once a week)

Additionally, when you're connected to the internet, your phone or computer are communicating with nearby cell towers, which means they're also emitting low levels of radiation, and research34,35 shows being exposed to cellphone radiation for three hours before bedtime inhibits your ability to fall asleep quickly and makes it harder to reach deep sleep.

The following infographic, created by BigBrandBeds.co.uk,36 illustrates how your electronic gadgets wreak havoc on your sleep when used before bedtime. If you struggle with insomnia or poor sleep quality, you can find loads of additional guidance in "Sleep — Why You Need it and 50 Ways to Improve It."

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