November 5, 2013

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Sleep: It’s Not Optional

By Heather Stewart

November 5, 2013

When push comes to shove, it’s often our sleep that gets shoved aside. After all, there are only 24 hours in a day, and when you’re juggling heavy work loads and family responsibilities, not to mention regular exercise, cutting into your sleeping hours seems reasonable, even praiseworthy.

Think again, says Dr. Robert J. Farney, head of the sleep medicine division for Intermountain Healthcare, Urban Central Region. Farney says this attitude is “biological arrogance” and warns there is a high price to pay for those lost hours of sleep.

For executives who routinely forego sleep, the impacts can be felt throughout their organization. Such execs “operate under a dark cloud,” Farney says, and that dark cloud permeates the company.

Running on Empty

“For a very long time, people regarded sleep as an option,” Farney says. In reality, he says, cutting back on sleep is “highly detrimental.” He lists several negative impacts of long-term, partial sleep deprivation.

Impaired cognitive function. “Most people are aware that if you don’t get enough sleep, you’re likely to feel tired, sleepy and inattentive,” Farney says. But those feelings are signals that your cognitive functioning is impaired. “By inattentiveness, that means whether or not you are staying on task mentally … or whether the mind is leaving and doing other things, and time-sharing without you realizing it.”

He adds, “We know that when people have that problem, they’re less likely to persevere in working through problems; it’s easier to just cut corners or do something without spending the time.”

Impaired memory. “If you are not attentive, then your ability to take in new information and then put that into long-term memory is impaired. The first step in memory is attention. You have to be attentive, you have to be receptive, cognitively, and actually making efforts to remember things, and that doesn’t happen if you are sleep deprived,” Farney Says.

Impaired judgment. “People who are sleep deprived over days and days in an experimental situation get progressively worse—that is, their error rates increase progressively for every day that they are in a sleep-deprived situation—and I don’t mean totally sleep deprived, I mean getting five hours of sleep per night rather than seven hours,” Farney explains.

Damaged relationships. “The most common and perhaps earliest indication of sleep inadequacy is irritability, and so interpersonal relationships are affected. If you are in a situation where you have to work with people, at any level, your ability to interact with that person is going to be impaired if you are sleep deprived.”

Cardiovascular and cerebrovascular threats. Farney says partial sleep deprivation has been linked to a disruption of the body’s coagulation factors—in other words, a sleep deprived person will produce more blood clots, which could lead to heart attack or stroke.

Metabolic impairment. Researchers have induced insulin resistance in otherwise healthy people by depriving them of full nights of sleep, Farney says. So, essentially, lack of adequate sleep can lead to a pre-diabetic state. Additionally, chronically tired people tend to gravitate to high-caloric foods to score a hit of energy; over time, this can cause weight gain and exacerbate insulin resistance.

Get Ready for Bed

Sometimes getting to sleep is the problem. Simple behavior changes make it more likely that you’ll go to sleep and stay asleep. “It’s every common sense thing that you can think of,” Farney says.

Make your bedroom a sanctuary for sleep. Keep your bedroom cool, comfortable, quiet and dark. A fan or a white-noise machine can reduce noisy distractions, while blackout curtains will minimize light, especially for shift workers. Hide the alarm clock—its light can be distracting, and if you’re having trouble sleeping, a constant reminder of the time can make it hard to quiet your mind.

Turn off the monitors. The key is to avoid what Farney calls “activating the brain.” And television is a primary culprit of that because of the light emitted from the monitor. “So you should not be watching television or playing video games—those activities are particularly bad,” he says. “The light has an effect on circadian systems … the light is a drug to the brain, literally.”

Farney discourages people from bringing their mobile devices or e-readers to bed with them for the same reason.

Get enough exercise. “Not working out for an hour, but just good, physical activity,” he says. But don’t exercise in the hours before bed—that will stimulate your brain.

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