Slumber to Good Health

We fight slumber to struggle to get back to work. We try to stay awake to confront life challenges,
assuming that we may reach our goals earlier at the expense of sleep.

Can we really afford not to sleep?

Researcher Allan Rechtschaffen performed sleepless rats experiments in 1980s. Rodents forced to
stay awake grew progressively weaker, colder, wobblier, and thinner, despite eating much more than
usual. After 11 to 54 days, they died. Autopsies revealed that their immune system had failed. As the
rats demonstrated, total sleep deprivation can be fatal, crashing our body systems.

Sleeplessness increases our risk for heart attacks. In one study of Japanese workers, those who slept
fewer than 6 hours were four to five times more likely to experience cardiac arrest than those who
got more sleep. Sleep-deprived people are 2 to 3 times more likely to have calcification in their
coronary arteries, a condition that narrows and stresses the blood vessels. In sleep, blood pressure
normally drops, but not in the sleep deprived. This hypertension increases the risk of stroke.

American men who sleep fewer than 6 hours have a significantly greater risk of developing coronary
heart disease. In Japan, men working more than 60 hours a week, and therefore short on sleep, are
twice as likely to have heart attacks as those who work 40 hours. Mortality goes up for the overslept
as well. The right amount as always, seems to be 7 to 9 hours, as sound and uninterrupted as you can
make them.

Poor sleep is connected to dementia, sleep disturbances can be early warning signs of Alzheimer’s
disease. In fact, during a good night’s sleep, our brains may literally be washed clean. A recent study
shows that during sleep, fluids flow through crevices in the brain, washing out toxins.

Sleep is intimately connected to your body’s metabolism, including its ability to process glucose
(blood sugar). Sleeplessness and obesity can be a vicious cycle. Lack of sleep is also directly tied to
obesity and diabetes: Without enough sleep, the stomach and other organs overproduce ghrelin, the
hunger hormone, prompting us to eat more than we need. People who are short on sleep need 40
percent more insulin than their rested counterparts. The hormone leptin makes you feel full and
drops in people who are sleep deprived, while its complement, the appetite stimulating hormone
ghrelin, increases. Sleepless folks eat 300 more calories a day than the well–slept. Sleep deprivation
is connected to a rise in obesity and type 2 diabetes. Sleepless folks are hungrier than others, and
they tend to reach for sweets, not vegetables.

It is in deep sleep that our cells produce the most growth hormone, which services bones and muscles
throughout our lives. Most muscle building and tissue repair happens during slumber. Sleep is
essential for maintaining a healthy immune system, body temperature, and blood pressure. Without
enough of it, we are at greater risk of stroke and even some cancers.

Sleep researchers have found that the neurons controlling sleep in the brain are in constant
conversation with the immune system. When you are sick, the immune system prompts the body to
sleep more. When you run short on slumber, your brain cannot stimulate a proper immune response.
Sleepless people have fewer cytokines, proteins that fight infection and inflammation. They also
produce far fewer cancer-fighting natural killer cells, a single night with four hours of sleep results in
a 70 percent drop in these immune system stalwarts.


A full night’s sleep also bolsters your response to virus. Those who slept less than 6 hours a night were 4.5times more likely to catch a cold than
those who got 7 or more hours. Sleeplessness may even promote cancer. People with reduced
amounts of natural killer cells have a greater risk of dying from a wide range of cancers. Shift work,
with its disrupted sleep rhythms, has been connected to breast, prostate, and colon cancers.

Vaccinations are the first line of defense, but scientists are finding that sleep, or lack of it, can have
a profound impact on the effectiveness of a vaccine. One study showed that people who slept for
only 4 hours a night for 6 nights had less than half the immune responses after a flu shot of their
well-slept counterparts. Similar effects have been found with the hepatitis A vaccine.

Poor sleep is a hallmark of many mental illnesses including schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder. Even in small doses, sleeplessness affects a healthy person’s emotions and perceptions. In
one experience, for instance, people with insomnia repeatedly misread facial expressions, identifying
angry faces as fearful instead. Studies show that people who are short on sleep have overreactive
amygdalae that yank them back and forth between positive and negative emotions. People who
report insomnia are four times more likely to develop major depression than those with healthy sleep.
Three quarters of those who already have depression also suffer from poor sleep. In patients with
depression, sleeplessness is a recognized risk factor for suicide. Most patients with bipolar disorder
also have insomnia, particularly just before and during manic episodes. Sleep loss can trigger an
episode. People with anxiety disorders are more likely to sleep poorly with sleeplessness worsening
their symptoms and making recovery tougher.

Sleep deprivation reduces productivity and increases medical care and results accidents, costing the
American economy more than $400 billion. How much more does it cost the world?
Perhaps we can start reflecting if it is really worth sacrificing our sleep hours, to achieve our daily
objectives. Maybe, we should let our body slumber a little, for better returns in the long run?

Some tips for better sleep:

1. Make it a habit to sleep and wake up at fixed time. Minimum 7 hours of sleep.
2. Establish a soothing bedtime routine. No watching of thrillers or arguing with people before
3. Use your bedroom only for sleep and sex, no work.
4. Avoid caffeine and other stimulants before bed.
5. Don’t eat a large or spicy meal and limit intake of fluids, before bedtime.
6. Exercise regularly. Fit people sleep better.
7. Expose yourself to bright light in the mornings. Avoid bright lights and glow from electronic
devices for at least 30 minutes before sleep.
8. Don’t toss and turn for hours. If you cannot sleep, get out of bed after 20 minutes and do
something restful in dim light, then try sleeping again.

Adapted from National Geographic Special Edition 2020, “SLEEP”