Whether you’ve been up half the night with a crying baby, or you had one of those toss and turn all night nights, sleep deprivation can happen to the best of us.
But while we might chalk it down to a bad night and resign ourselves to mainlining the coffee, regularly getting less than six hours shut eye can have some pretty extreme effects on our health.
A recent study from UCLA has found that when you are sleep deprived, it makes it tougher for your brain cells to communicate with each other, which can lead to temporary mental lapses that affect how you remember, interact with and perceive your environment.
For the research scientists studied 12 sleep-deprived epileptic patients who had electrodes implanted in their brains and were asked to categorise a variety of images as fast as possible.
Performing the task grew more challenging as the patients grew sleepier. And the scans showed that as the patients slowed down, their brain cells did, too.
“We were fascinated to observe how sleep deprivation dampened brain cell activity,” co-author Dr. Yuval Nir explained in a summary of the findings. “Unlike the usual rapid reaction, the neurons responded slowly and fired more weakly, and their transmissions dragged on longer than usual.”
Dr Itzhak Fried, professor of neurosurgery at UCLA and co-author of the study, said the effect could prevent a tired person noticing a pedestrian stepping in front of a car.
“Severe fatigue exerts a similar influence on the brain to drinking too much,” he said. “Yet no legal or medical standards exist for identifying overtired drivers on the road the same way we target drunk drivers.”
The news comes as a further sleep expert warns that sleep-loss is the greatest public-health challenge facing the developed world in the 21st century.
Matthew Walker, professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, and author of Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams (Allen Lane) told Irish Times that regularly sleeping less than the recommended eight hours can have a severe impact on long term health.
“Routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system; more than doubles your risk of cancer; disrupts blood-sugar levels, increasing your risk of diabetes; and increases the likelihood of blocked arteries, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and stroke,” he says.
What’s more, as Walker points out there is not one organ in the body or process that isn’t enhanced by sleep and detrimentally impaired if we don’t get enough. “Sleep helps fight malignancy, prevents infection, fine-tunes the balance of insulin and circulating glucose, regulates our appetite and maintains a flourishing microbiome in your gut,” he adds.
Medical experts recommend that adults get between seven and nine hours of shuteye a night. However, many Britons currently only get six hours.
So what do we do about it? Some scientists suggest that the secret to a good night’s kip could actually lie in having a purpose in you life.
In a new study, researchers questioned over 800 people between the ages of 60 and 100 about their purpose in life and their sleeping habits.
They found that those who felt they had more of a purpose in life had a much better sleep quality. They were also 63% less likely to suffer from sleep apnoea – a breathing condition that causes people to wake up throughout the night – and 52% less likely to have restless leg syndrome.
Other sleep experts believe there are a whole host of sleep mistakes we’re making including checking the time regularly when you can’t sleep and thinking that you can catch up on sleep.
Cutting down on tech-time before you go to bed is also thought to help aid a more restful night because the blue-dominant LED light from digital devices can hinder sleep.
If you’re really struggling to sleep, The Sleep Council recommend investing in a decent bed, exercising more and seeking help from your GP if necessary.
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