It is Monday again. The week is only beginning and already you feel tired and drained. But thinking back to Friday night’s game and the movie on Saturday night, you think it was all worth it. I mean, what harm can a come of a few late nights, is sleep deprivation really an issue?

The race is on!

All of us are in that rat race. You get up early to go to work. When you eventually get home after you went to gym directly from the office (because let’s face it, just having that six pack under your suit makes you feel so much more confident) and stopped by the mall to get Susan or Jerry or whoever a belated birthday gift, you quickly gulp down a hastily put together meal or some takeaways in front of the TV, because you just have to see the new episode of Inhumans!

After you scrolled through your news feed on Facebook and liked the latest set of selfies on Instagram you realise you still have to finish that report that is due tomorrow and oh my gosh! Just look at the time! Another night of taking your laptop to bed, which incidentally, you shouldn’t do. Yet again you go to bed way after your actual bed time. Oh well, luckily the festive season is around the corner and you’ll get plenty of sleep then (yeah right!).

Man sitting alone on a city rooftop staring at his smartphone

How much sleep is “enough”?

This is something you need to figure out for yourself, but the general rule is that adults over the age of 18 should sleep between seven and nine hours every night. In my opinion, the best way to find out how much sleep you need is to listen to your body. When you get tired at night, go to bed. Don’t force yourself to stay awake just for the sake of being awake. It doesn’t amount to anything! In fact, it can only influence you negatively.

Some nightmarish truths about sleep deprivation.

Have you ever woken up feeling grumpy? Do you struggle taking decisive action after a night spent doing something other than sleeping? When driving home from your weekend away where you spent most of the time doing anything but resting, do you feel as if all of the other cars on the freeway are driving too close to you? If you have, you know how the immediate symptoms of sleep deprivation feel. Now you might ask, are there any symptoms, other than what you feel the day after, that can indicate a lack of sleep?

Hold onto your hats ladies and gentlemen, because what you are about to read might scare you!

Although scientists do not yet fully understand why we sleep (or are supposed to sleep) a third of our lives “away”, it is becoming increasingly clear that sleep deprivation is a silent killer.

A rundown hospital room with hospital beds and a cabinet in the United Kingdom.

A lack of sleep can and will negatively influence one’s ability to function optimally. Going without sleep or sleeping too little will have adverse effects on your mood, your ability to focus and on your sense of reason. In other words, not sleeping enough impairs your good judgement. With sleep out the door, your performance at work, school or varsity will go out the door as well. It has been clinically proven that sleep deprivation undermines one’s capacity to memorise things, to do maths and to apply logic in solving problems.

With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at what a lack of rest can do to you and your environment…

1.Disaster strikes on sleep deprivation’s watch

According to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, investigations into the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 and the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle in the same year showed that “sleep deprivation played a critical role in these accidents”. With both of these disasters it was found that the people in charge of making decisions were acting under conditions of extreme sleep deprivation.

In 2004 Dr. Charles Czeisler revealed in a study that up to 36% of in-hospital errors in the United States of America could have been caused due to the hospital staff being under rested. In his study, he shows that newly graduated doctors and interns were often asked to work long shifts of 24 to 36 hours. During these shifts they often do not get the opportunity to rest and therefore their judgement becomes impaired.

Apart from causing major disasters, what can sleeplessness hold in for the individual? Below discuss a few of the risks you could be exposed to if you don’t get enough shuteye.

2.Obesity is lurking

Yup. If you don’t sleep enough, you can become overweight and obese. We’ve already established that you like to go to the gym because you want to look good, but maybe you are just not losing weight as fast as you had hoped. I bet you would never have guessed that sleeping too little could be one of the causes of not being able to lose weight, or even one of the causes for developing bad eating habits and picking up weight!

Just to be clear here, there is no linear relationship between not sleeping enough and picking up weight. It is not as if, for every hour’s worth of sleep that you miss, you pick up 100g. But there is a study that shows how your chance of becoming obese increases with every hour of sleep that your body misses.

Simply put, when you sleep, your body releases a hormone called leptin, which is responsible for making you feel full. If you don’t sleep enough, your body produces too much of the hormone that makes you feel hungry (ghrelin). You can imagine that a combination of too much hunger hormones and too little “I am replete” hormones makes for a dangerous combination. Under continued sleep depraved circumstances it is quite easy to get into the habit of eating too much without even noticing it.

3.Increased chance of getting diabetes

Insulin is the hormone that controls your blood sugar levels and promotes fat storage in your body. The amount of sleep you get has a direct impact on how your body reacts to this hormone. If you don’t sleep enough, a recent study has shown that you will secrete too much insulin after you’ve eaten, which leads to higher than normal blood sugar levels, which in turn puts you in immediate danger of contracting type 2 diabetes.

4.Sleep deprivation can cause heart disease

If you have hypertension already, you should seriously consider keeping a sleep diary to make sure that you sleep enough every night. Research has shown that one night of inadequate sleep might lead to an increase in blood pressure the following day. With enough sleepless or “less sleep” nights you can induce a stroke or cardiovascular disease.

5.Your mood swings could be because of a lack of sleep

Imagine the irritability you feel when you get woken up by the sound of your neighbour mowing his lawn at six o’clock on a Saturday morning. Close your eyes, slow your breathing, feel the warmth of your blankets, the soft mattress beneath your relaxed body and now hear the incessant hum of a lawnmower. That all annoying sound that cut through the sweetest of dreams and the deepest slumber. Are you with me?

An overhead shot of a green lawnmower on green grass

That feeling can be perpetuated by chronic sleep deprivation. Scientific studies have shown that people undergoing sleep deprivation tests indicated that they felt higher levels of stress, anxiety, anger, sadness and mental fatigue while sleeping less than five hours a night. Another test showed that subjects sleeping for only four hours per night felt pessimistic and didn’t want to interact socially.

So instead of taking those anti-depressants, maybe just go to bed earlier.

6.Basic immune functions can go haywire without enough sleep

Every process in your body requires some form of energy to take place. Fighting off disease and infection is no exception! When your immune system is active it often takes a heavy toll on the body, which is why so many doctors prescribe bed rest for a whole variety of illnesses.

Consolation – you can overcome your sleep deprived state!

I hope you are ready for bed after reading about how detrimental sleep deprivation is to your wellbeing!

If you are not able to go to bed right now though, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Even though it might take a lot of effort from your side, catching up on lost sleep is not altogether impossible.

The first step in claiming back your sleep is to be honest with yourself. Look in the mirror and see if you have dark circles under your eyes. Be critical on yourself, do you suffer from memory loss? Are you irritable? Do you lose track of things and find your mind wondering when it should be focused?

I must be honest with you; recently I’ve seen some of these symptoms in myself and it forced me to take responsibility for my sleeping pattern. It is difficult, but I decided not to stay awake until the early hours of the morning to play games or to read up on sleep and sleeplessness. I took an active decision to go to bed when feeling tired and to get out of bed when I wake up, even if I awake before my alarm goes off. Does it help? Maybe, maybe not. I am not sure yet. Most days I still feel tired and every now and then I grow anxious for no apparent reason, but according to the tips I’m about to give you, the anxiety and lethargy should wear off within the next month or so, if I can keep up my healthy sleeping pattern.

Pointers on how to catch up on sleep lost

Keep a sleep diary

As mentioned earlier in this blog, keep a sleep diary. It may sound silly, but successfully keeping track of your sleeping hours is the first step to creating a healthy sleep rhythm. If you know how much sleep you miss out on every week, it is easier to plan on how to catch up on those hours of sleep that you lost. It’s math…

Seek the light

Isn’t that a weird thing to say? Why should you seek the light if sleep comes easiest in darkness?

Well yes, it is easier and better to sleep in the dark, but when I say you should look for the light, I mean it. Reuters journalist David K. Randall writes in his book on sleep and the science behind it (Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep) that you should try to get sunlight exposure in the morning so that your internal clock can synchronise with your surroundings. Apparently this will make it easier to fall asleep when you want to. According to him it will even help you to overcome jet lag!

Maybe that is part of the reason why farmers sleep so soundly.

Make your bedroom just that, a bedroom

Do not use your bedroom as a work station or as a game station. Leave the PlayStation or the Xbox in the lounge and leave your work and studies in the study. Your body must know that when it enters your bedroom, it is time to calm down, to relax and to rest. Your mind must be trained to switch off once you enter your bedroom.

Don’t spend too much time on your bed or in your bedroom during the day. This might upset your internal clock and make it more difficult to fall asleep at night.

Do not procrastinate

This is my downfall. I love leaving things to the very last minute. Yes, I even leave sleep for as long as I possibly can. Maybe it is FOMO (Fear of Missing Out, for those of you that are not familiar with the abbreviations movement), I don’t know. But I just don’t want to go to bed at night! Basically it comes back to taking responsibility for your sleeping habits and in doing so, for the rest of your life.

If you plan everything around the time you spend in bed, I’m pretty sure you will have it all neatly planned out. After all, if you sleep as much as you should, there are only so many hours in a day…