The Surprising Toll of Sleep Deprivation

By Epstein, Lawrence J. | Newsweek, July 5, 2010 | Go to article overview

The Surprising Toll of Sleep Deprivation


Epstein, Lawrence J., Newsweek


Byline: Lawrence J. Epstein

How skimping on rest affects your brain, your hormones, and your heart.

How much sleep is enough? Is how sleepy you feel a good judge of whether or not you are getting enough sleep? If you get less sleep than some ideal amount but you feel fine, could you be damaging your health anyway? Are we getting less than we used to? Recent research provides some surprising answers.

Adults typically need seven to nine hours of sleep each night to feel fully rested and function at their best. However, Americans are getting less sleep than they did in the past. A 2005 National Sleep Foundation poll found that Americans averaged 6.9 hours of sleep per night, which represents a drop of about two hours per night since the 19th century, one hour per night over the past 50 years, and about 15 to 25 minutes per night just since 2001.

Unfortunately, we are not very good at perceiving the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania restricted volunteers to less than six hours in bed per night for two weeks. The volunteers perceived only a small increase in sleepiness and thought they were functioning relatively normally. However, formal testing showed that their cognitive abilities and reaction times progressively declined during the two weeks. By the end of the two-week test, they were as impaired as subjects who had been awake continuously for 48 hours.

Moreover, cognitive and mood problems may not be the only consequences of too little sleep. Researchers at the University of Chicago have shown that too little sleep changes the body's secretion of some hormones. The changes promote appetite, reduce the sensation of feeling full after a meal, and alter the body's response to sugar intake--changes that can promote weight gain and increase the risk of developing diabetes. Since then, multiple epidemiological studies have shown that people who chronically get too little sleep are at greater risk of being overweight and developing diabetes. …

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