Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen, University of Utah
We live in a culture where knocking back a can of Red Bull and pulling an all-nighter is a regular occurrence. Most of us have been there, whether as a student studying for exams or as an employee anxiously working towards a deadline. Although lack of sleep is often considered to be no big deal and even something to joke about, medical professionals have described the national sleep deficit as an epidemic. Consequences of lack of sleep range from physical tolls on the body to an actual lowering of cognitive performance. Additionally, a lack of sleep or poor sleep quality can contribute to greater risk for chronic diseases, everything from weight gain, hypertension, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.
In health news, you’ll often hear of two epidemics–one related to obesity, and the other related to sleep deficit. Indeed, scientists have begun to wonder if the two are possibly interrelated, and an NIH clinical trial is actually prescribing sleep to patients suffering from obesity. Other studies have been examining the link between not enough sleep and increased diabetes and obesity. Studies have also researched the connection between poor sleep with increased potential of hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
If anybody needs further convincing of the potential health risks connected to poor sleep, there is also an association between disrupted natural circadian rhythms and a higher risk of cancer development, due to the suppression of immune system function. Researchers have even found a relationship between a lack of sleep and lowered testosterone in men.
Moreover, it is not just the body suffering from insufficient sleep–it’s also our memories. Sleep is both essential after learning for retaining new information, and critical before learning for committing the new knowledge to memory. Have you ever made a poor or irrational decision and blamed it on being tired? It’s not just an excuse–lack of sleep can truly impair attention and decision making abilities. Poor sleep can also affect mood and mental wellness, and a relationship has been found between sleep deficiency and depression.
It’s simply a fact–our minds and bodies can’t function well without proper sleep. It’s not necessarily just a personal risk but can also be a public safety issue as well. In the US, tired drivers who are falling asleep at the wheel cause one-fifth of vehicle accidents and about 8,000 deaths. When it comes to getting behind the wheel, exhaustion can be compared to alcohol intoxication; most people wouldn’t consider driving after several drinks, but many would willingly down a cup of coffee and set out for a long journey after not getting enough sleep, hoping for the best. Additionally, a study of hospital interns working for 24 hours “found that their odds of stabbing themselves with a needle or scalpel increased 61%.”
Ultimately, the discussion about how to navigate the nation’s sleep epidemic continues. However, with more awareness about the harmfulness of sleep deficiency and the way it is affecting us–we can only hope that people begin to prioritize getting better sleep for healthier and happier living.
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