Recently the CDC announced that insufficient sleep is a public health epidemic.
You might shake your head at that. Surely, getting a little less than 8 hours is not that big a deal.
But epidemics have catastrophic consequences – they’re not just inconvenient lifestyle problems. And the CDC is notoriously careful not to say anything that might spark a panic, so when they say something’s an epidemic, we need to pay attention.
The CDC research indicates that sleep insufficiency – less than 7 hours, which is not even close to the chronic deprivation many people experience – is correlated with:
- Motor vehicle crashes
- Industrial disasters (their word)
- Medical and other occupational errors
- Increased mortality
- Reduced quality of life and productivity
And the CDC aren’t the only ones who are worried.
UC Berkeley just released a study showing that missing just one night of sleep can drastically impair your ability to judge facial expressions correctly.
If you don’t notice that someone’s behavior is aggressive or threatening, you’re at significantly increased risk than you would be if you were alert. You’re also more likely to miss critical indications from others that they need help or that something’s wrong – say, if someone is in pain, sick or scared.
Brain scans from that study showed that the sleep-deprived subjects couldn’t tell the difference between a threatening face and a friendly one. And to complicate things even further, the heart rates of those subjects didn’t respond normally to a threat or to a friendly interaction – there was a physiological disconnect between the brain and heart that disrupted the normal stress response.
Harvard Medical School invited science writers earlier this year to speak with their experts so the journalists could get to understand just how big a monster sleep deprivation can be. And it’s a big one.
Over the last 50 years, average sleep duration has decreased by an hour and a half – from 8.5 hours a night to just under 7. Nearly a third of American adults sleep less than six hours a night, with 69% of adults reporting that they don’t get enough sleep. 
Sleep When You’re Dead
This creeping deprivation seems to be inextricably tied to a belief that sleeping is just another way of burning daylight – that we could be working, playing or doing anything else. That getting plenty of sleep is unproductive, lazy and the domain of the chronically unambitious.
But in the last decade, the science of sleep has started to reveal just how critical it is to get enough.
Disrupted sleep can lead to serious genetic impairments: a study at Hôpital du Sacré-Coeur in Montreal found that around 50% of people with disrupted sleep had developed neurodegenerative diseases within 12 years of the study. 
A 2013 study from the University of Rochester found why that incidence is so high:
When we’re awake, the brain is busy, and all the cellular activity creates beta-amyloid. This protein is toxic to the brain, and having a build-up is associated with increased rates of Alzheimer’s disease. Other proteins that are usually harmless get misfolded more frequently the longer we’re awake.
When we fall asleep, those damaged and toxic proteins are swept away – channels in the brain expand, allowing cerebrospinal fluid to flow in and clean up the day’s waste. But when we cut our sleep short, there’s not enough time for all these toxins to be cleared away and we set ourselves on a path to neurodegeneration. 
People suffering from sleep deprivation are also at significantly higher risk of cardiovascular disease, and have much higher incidence of depression and poor quality of life. This seems to indicate that not only does sleep refresh us for each new day, but it’s a necessity for maintaining cognitive health, robust vascular function, and emotional and psychological balance.
Want to know something crazy?
Scientists in the Harvard neurology department found that getting six hours of sleep a night for 12 consecutive nights (about how much sleep many Americans get every night) impairs cognitive and physical performance so much that you become “virtually indistinguishable from that of someone who has been awake for twenty-four hours straight”.
And pulling an all-nighter puts you in the same performance category of someone with a blood alcohol level of around 0.1% – about as drunk as you’d be after 4 drinks in an hour (if you’re female) or 6 drinks in an hour (if you’re male). [4,5]
To break that down – sleeping the “normal” amount of six hours a night actually means you’re actually functioning like you’re drunk. That ain’t normal, folks.
And it’s not just your motor skills that suffer.
Your ability to regulate your emotions decreases, and you become more impulsive and prone to bouts of depression. Your learning capability plummets, as does your ability to make sound decisions.
This can have drastic effects, especially when you work in a high pressure environment: a study at Brigham and Womens’ Hospital (that has now been replicated many times) found that staff who worked regular shifts made more than double the amount of mistakes compared to those who worked shorter sixteen-hour shifts that included a nap.
In a hospital, those mistakes could be the difference between patients living and dying. In business, it could be the difference between closing a major deal and burning your bridges.
It’s no wonder the CDC has put sleep deprivation on the same level as highly infectious contagions.
So How Do You Get More Sleep?
- Turn off your electronics about an hour before you go to bed – that means your TV, phone, laptop, tablet and e-readers. The blue-spectrum light emitted by all these devices stimulates your optic nerve and indicates to your brain that you should be awake and alert. If you rely on your phone for the alarm, put it onto airplane mode so your room isn’t illuminated by flashing notifications and messages through the night.
- Eat, drink and be merry. Just don’t do it right before bed. Nicotine, caffeine and alcohol will all disrupt your body’s ability to fall into a deep sleep easily. A big meal right before sleep will cause problems, as will skipping dinner. Exercising and eating on a regular schedule will make it much easier to fall asleep quickly and get good quality sleep.
- Avoid medicated sleep aids whenever possible – they don’t mimic the natural progression of sleep, and many even suppress REM sleep cycles, which actually exacerbates your sleep deprivation.  Instead, make sure your micronutrient intake is sufficient. Mineral deficiencies can cause disrupted sleep, as can unhealthy gut flora. Try MagTech and Prebiotic+ Resistant Starch to help you fall asleep easily and to significantly improve your sleep quality.
- Get yourself on a schedule. Going to bed around the same time has much greater impact than you might think – going to bed late one night and trying to ‘catch up’ the next doesn’t work. You just accumulate sleep debt. Pick a time and stick to it.
- Humans are extraordinarily sensitive to light. We’ve evolved photoreceptors in the eye that respond only to changes in light and dark. Harvard circadian neuroscientist Steven Lockley says, “Our clocks have evolved to anticipate tomorrow.” If you’re exposed to light while sleeping, your body starts to wake up, because it must be ‘tomorrow’. So make sure your room is dark. Like, can’t see your hand in front of your face dark. Hang up blackout curtains, put a block across the door if light seeps in around it, and get a sleep mask if it’s still not dark enough.
Have you been sleep deprived before? How did you get back to a normal level of sleep? Share your story in the comments below!