In our crazy modern world of upside-down priorities, it’s become almost a badge of honor to be sleep-deprived. I hear it all the time—people bragging about how they “only need 4 or 5 hours of sleep” with a note of pride in their voices. They always seem so...smug. It’s as if sleeping is a vice. Something to be ashamed of. Somehow we’ve come to a point where sleep has been relegated to the status of a luxury, a secret pleasure that we only let ourselves enjoy on rare occasions—and often feel guilty about afterward.
It’s time for a dose of reality: Sleep is not a luxury. It’s a necessity. Just like air and water and food, our bodies must have sleep, and not getting enough can lead to problems from minor inconveniences like a foggy memory to outright catastrophes like traffic accidents. Sleep deprivation is a huge problem in America, and it doesn’t just hurt us—it hurts other people too.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, a whopping 60% of Americans say they’ve driven when they’re sleepy in the past year, and a shocking 37% admitted to actually falling asleep at the wheel. Even more incredibly, 13% of those who fell asleep while driving said it happened at least once per month.
Those are, quite frankly, terrifying numbers. They show that for every 100 people on the road, 37 fell asleep at the wheel during the last year...and between four and five fall asleep at the wheel on a regular basis.
Yet we continue to short ourselves on sleep.
The truth is that lack of sleep affects every system in your body. We already know that sleep deprivation can make you gain weight. It can lower your immunity and make you more likely to get sick. It causes a huge number of problems, and some of the worst effects are on your brain. If you’re not getting at least 7 hours per night—no matter how old you are—here are 7 reasons that you really need more sleep.
Sleep is when you form memories
Your brain uses your sleep time to sort and file your memories. While you are blissfully sleeping, your brain moves your short-term memories into long-term storage. So if you’re your memory isn’t up to par and you’re sleeping less than 7 hours per night minimum, an additional hour—or even two—might be the solution.
Your brain builds up Alzheimer’s plaques when you’re sleep deprived
Several studies have found that sleep-deprived brains build up the same beta-amyloid plaques we find in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. However, when you get enough deep sleep, your brain clears out the plaques. Your sleep cycle is divided into 3 parts:
- Stage 1 - The transition from being awake to asleep, you can be easily awoken in this stage
- Stage 2 - Eye movements stop and brain waves slow down
- Stage 3 - Deep sleep, It is very difficult to wake someone in this stage of sleep
Each cycle takes about 90 minutes. You repeat this cycle over and over throughout the night. When you cut your sleep short you’re probably cutting stage 3 sleep, leaving your brain with some leftover plaque.
Lack of sleep makes you more likely to have a stroke
According to a study from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, sleeping less than six hours per night makes you four times as likely to have a stroke. A stroke happens when you have either a blood clot or a burst blood vessel in your brain, and can result in paralysis or even death.
Too little sleep might make your brain shrink
There’s some evidence that sleep deprivation might make you lose brain tissue. A Swedish study in 2013 found that after a single sleep-deprived night, participants blood contained substances usually only seen after a brain injury. This suggests that sleep deprivation might physically injure your brain.
You can’t focus when you’re sleep deprived
This might not be more than an irritation if you’re only trying to read the newspaper, but lack of focus can cause real problems too. Lack of focus, for instance, could be a literally life or death issue if you’re driving or operating machinery, and it can turn your work day upside down.
Lack of sleep makes you overly emotional
When you haven’t had enough sleep, your emotions are very near the surface. You’re more likely to get in an argument with your spouse, lose your temper with your kids, or cry at a sad movie. It affects your judgement, and you’re less likely to make sound decisions on any topic. Getting enough sleep is one of the keys to staying on an even emotional keel.
How much sleep do you need?
How much you need depends on how old you are, but the answer is: probably more than you think. According to the National Sleep Foundation, most adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night, and maybe as much as 10. People 65 and older need slightly less—7 to 8 hours, and even up to 9. If you’re one of those folks who says they get by on 4 to 6 hours sleep per night, try sleeping in for an extra hour or two. Not only will it make you a safer driver, it might just save you from a serious health problem.
It’s time we stop treating sleep like a luxury and acknowledge that getting enough rest is a necessity. We just might save millions of dollars on health care, and we’d certainly see a lot fewer traffic accidents. If you routinely restrict yourself to six hours—or less—of sleep per night, think about this:
You wouldn’t try to run a marathon without drinking any water, because your body would get dehydrated. And you wouldn’t try to survive on 300 calories of food per day, because you would starve. Asking your body and brain to function on too little sleep is no different. Sleep isn’t the enemy. Sleep is some of the most effective medicine there is. So set your alarm an hour later, and start healing yourself.