It's essential to get enough nightly shut-eye, experts say
Woe to you who won't go to bed. Lack of sleep might be fouling your mood, metabolism and productivity.
Forget what you've heard about Benjamin Franklin, Michelangelo and Thomas Jefferson.
"I've heard that Benjamin Franklin, Michelangelo and Thomas Jefferson used to sleep in chairs … holding a coin over a copper pot so when they fell asleep, the coin would drop, make a noise and wake them up so they would only sleep three hours a night," says Dr. Daniel Buysse of the Western Psychiatry Institute and Clinic in Oakland. "I've heard these kind of apocryphal stories. I don't believe any of them."
Buysse is past president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. He believes in the power of slumber. Trouble is, more and more of us are getting less and less of it with increasingly toxic results.
"As a society, I think we're kind of victims of our success," says Buysse, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. "The problem is that our technology has left our evolution behind. … Our brains were not built to live in a 24-hour society. … Your brain doesn't really care, ultimately, if you have a lot of stuff to do the next day. It wants its sleep."
A majority of Americans say they don't get the recommended eight hours of sleep per night, according to a poll sponsored last year by the National Sleep Foundation, which promotes National Sleep Awareness Week that begins April 1.
"You always need to make time for a good night's sleep," says Dr. Mario Kinsella of West Penn Hospital, an internist who specializes in pulmonary function and sleep disorders. Kinsella routinely sees profound changes in patients who seek treatment for sleep apnea and other conditions that disrupt their sleep.
"People are always amazed. … They can't believe how well they feel," Kinsella says. "The emotional impact of recovery from sleep deprivation is wonderful."
When we don't get enough rest, however, our psyches often reveal the first signs of distress. Some become less sociable and lose their sense of humor. Other people become angry, sad and irritable, all at once.
"I believe a lot of people are sleep deprived," says Janet Werner, 42, of Shaler. When Werner fails to get eight hours of sleep, she says, "I don't have enough energy to drag myself to the gym after work. I find it more difficult to be focused. … I don't think I'm as productive. … If I've lost sleep, I tend to be hypnotized by the computer, instead of focused on my work. … If I was consistently deprived of sleep, I could see how it would make me cranky."
Pennsylvania Turnpike toll collector David Benner, 42, of Ross typically stays awake for several hours after his 3 to 11 p.m. shift. Some nights, Benner sleeps only several hours before waking up to the sounds of his 3-year-old son.
"If I only get four hours of sleep, I'm miserable, cranky and irritable," he says. "I fly off the handle when I don't get enough sleep. If I get eight hours of good sleep, I feel great."
Ability to focus and concentrate suffers when we rob ourselves of rest, says senior technician Todd Palmer of the Center for Sleep Disordered Breathing at UPMC Passavant, McCandless. Palmer routinely speaks to young people as part of a driver's education program offered through the Community College of Allegheny County. Combine sleep deprivation with alcohol or certain medications, and the result can be dangerous.
"What I tell kids is, 'If you're going to have two beers, and you are sleep deprived, it can feel like a six-pack, as far as impairing your ability to drive,' " Palmer says.
Adequate sleep is essential for emotional, cognitive and metabolic health, Buysse says.
"You can't make a person not sleep. You just can't do it," he says. "You can go without food for a couple of weeks. You can go without water for a couple of days. … If you try to go without sleep for a couple days, your brain catches up. It starts to sleep in the middle of your wakefulness."
Our bodies' need for sleep is "an extremely powerful drive," Buysse says. "There's increasing evidence that sleep is necessary for good immune function and good metabolic function."
Buysse cites a study, for example, where healthy, young adults slept only four or five hours per night for one week.
"They showed some subtle, but measurable changes in their ability to handle glucose," Buysse says. "They started to look kind of pre-diabetic."
Sleep deprivation also can cause symptoms that mimic the signs of clinical depression, he says.
Individual sleep needs vary, however, and people might indeed be night owls or early risers.
"You should get as much sleep as it takes to leave you feeling awake and functioning the next day," Buysse says. "For some people, the amount of sleep they need to feel awake and rested the next day is nine hours. For other people, it may be only six hours."
Teen-agers, however, generally need eight to 10 hours of sleep, says Kinsella of West Penn Hospital.
"It's true that some of us are natural night owls, while others tend to perform best in the morning," Buysse says. "In general, you find that people who are morning people tend to be longer sleepers than night people.
"Past studies show that adults tend to spend about 29 or 30 percent of each day sleeping, which comes out to be about 7.5 hours to eight. … That's kind of the ideal average. If you find yourself nodding off at lectures or meetings, or while watching TV, or while reading, you either have insufficient sleep at night, or you have some kind of sleep disorder."
Everyone also has a "sweet spot for sleep" that generally occurs between 3 and 7 a.m. daily, Buysse says. "Our peak times for sleepiness are in the middle of the night."
Buysse says he doubts that reduced sleep leads to extended life, as recently suggested by a study published in the February issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry. In that study, fewer deaths occurred among people who routinely slept six to seven hours per night, compared with people who slept eight hours or more. The study fails, however, to show that longer sleep causes earlier death, or that shorter sleep increases life expectancy, Buysse says.
The study also ignores the ill effects of sleep deprivation, he says.
Single-vehicle accidents, for example, tend to occur most often in the wee hours before dawn. People simply fall asleep at the wheel.
"It's not the case that we can just will ourselves to be awake. … Our brain follows other mandates. So we ignore our biological rhythms at our own peril.
"If you look at the number of public disasters that have occurred in the past decades — look at Three Mile Island, Exxon Valdez and Chernobyl — they all happened at night," Buysse says. "Why• Because our brains are not vigilant at those times."
|No, not REM the rock band ...|
To boost your creativity, libido and memory, try sleeping 7.5 to 8 hours per night, suggests Todd Palmer, senior technician at the UPMC Passavant Center for Sleep-Disordered Breathing in McCandless.
"Before the light bulb, people got a lot more sleep and probably were more productive," Palmer says. "Do your own study. … How much better do you do on eight hours (of sleep)?"
Getting six hours of sleep per night — or less — seems to rob our brains of the night's longest and most restorative period of Rapid Eye Movement-stage sleep, he says. This extended period of REM-stage sleep typically occurs in the eighth hour of slumber.
The most physically restorative sleep seems to occur during the fourth and fifth hours of sleep, he says.
During REM-stage sleep, we dream while our muscles become essentially paralyzed. This arrangement prohibits us from screaming during dreams, for example, or actually carrying out our visions. That's why we can't seem to run away from predators during nightmares.
"When I wake up out of REM, I tend to feel very groggy," Palmer says.
During any given night, REM-stage sleep occurs, in varying amounts, about once every 90 minutes, Palmer says. It's one of five stages of sleep we pass through approximately every 90 minutes.
We might get into trouble, however, if we don't pass through at least four or five of these 90-minute cycles. "You need to have a full seven to eight hours to get it all in," Palmer says. "Most people would feel a lot better off if they got eight hours."
Adopting the following habits might improve your sleep life:
Source: National Center on Sleep Disorders Research; National Heart Lung and Blood Institute; National Institutes of Health.