By Nicole Stinson
Photo courtesy of Ed Yourdon.
Quantity does not equal quality when it comes to sleep, or so finds a new study on sleep by the Stress Research Institute at Stockholm University. Challenging current perceptions on sleep, the results of the study may provide good news to those joining the increasing trend of Americans who spend less than seven hours sleeping per night.
The research, due to be published later this year, was conducted by Torbjorn Akerstedt, Director at the Stress Research Institute and his team. The report suggests that the number of hours of slept has little affect on how a person functions during the day.
“The length of sleep is not a good measurement to analyze whether we get enough sleep or not,” Akerstdet told the AFP. He states that sleep is more dependent on genetics, health, and age.
David Joffe, a senior staff physician at The University of Sydney, believes this research extremely narrows how we should look at sleep requirements as lowering sleep amounts can lead to sleep deprivation.
“We know that sleep deprivation can provoke a number of things,” he tells BTR.
About 47 percent of Americans reported less than seven hours of sleep a night on work nights, according to a survey by the National Sleep Foundation in 2012. This number was significantly lower on weekend and non-workdays with only 21 percent continuing similar sleeping hours.
This was a slight increase from the previous year for working days but a significant decrease in the number of people who slept similar hours on non-work days and weekends, showing that Americans are attempting to use weekends to catch up on sleep.
The National Sleep Foundation also found that Americans averaged the second lowest number of hours sleep. Japan was the lowest, with an average of six hours and 21 minutes on work nights. Other countries included in the survey were the United Kingdom, Canada, Mexico, and Germany.
“We all have our own requirements of sleep, but the general consensus is about 7.5 hours,” Andrew Westwood, clinical neurologist at Columbia University, tells BTR.
Current studies and publications from top medical schools such as Harvard University and Columbia University have been advocating more sleep.
“There is no question that chronic sleep deprivation causes decreases in alertness, response times, and cognitive functioning,” Carl Bazil, a professor and the director of the Division of Comprehensive Epilepsy Center and Sleep Center at Columbia University, tells BTR.
“We seem to feel that sleep is a luxury, it isn’t,” he says. “It’s a physiological need.”
Decreased amounts of sleep and poor quality sleep can result in lower concentration, sleepiness, depression, and mood swings. Sleep deprivation has also been linked to weight gain.
While we might all be happy to blame the fast-food giants like McDonald’s for obesity epidemic, health experts say that sleep deprivation maybe the true culprit.
“Sleep debt increases ghrelin hormones which are basically what drives your appetite and they don’t make you crave carrots, they make you crave fats and carbs,” says Joffe.
Our bodies seek more energy when we do not sleep and so we reach for foods with high sugar contents, he says. “Then the problem is we sit on behinds and don’t use any of those calories and then later, we go to sleep.”
A more disturbing link is the affect sleep deprivation has on the immune system. There are increased risks of infections and cancers developing.
“We know that acute sleep debt will actually lower lymphocyte counts,” says Joffe.
Many catastrophes of human error including plane crashes have been attributed to sleepiness and sleep deprivation. In March, an Air France pilot crashed a plane, killing all 228 passengers onboard after one hour’s sleep the night before. While this month in Jacksonville, North Carolina, a man drove his SUV into a school after allegedly falling asleep at the wheel. Six children were sent to hospital.
The National Sleep Foundation found that 1.9 million drivers have car accidents or near misses due to sleepiness and 54 percent of drivers also admitted to driving while drowsy at least once a year. A startling 28 percent said they did so monthly.
“Probably the most common cause of sleep deprivation is voluntary restriction of sleep,” says Bazil.
His colleague, Andrew Westwood agrees, “our modern day lifestyles are often filled with many deadlines and demands and we cut short our sleep time to get things done. Stress and worries at work or at home keep you ‘pumped up’ and that can be a good thing in moderation, but people need to allow themselves time to de-stress otherwise it can difficult to relax and ultimately sleep.”
“Unrecognized sleep disorders are extremely common, particularly obstructive sleep apnea,” says Bazil. “Others, like insomnia, may be recognized but have not always been properly treated.”
Most people don’t realize that they suffer from sleep deprivation, particularly as it has become the increasing norm. But before you chain yourself to your bed and never leave your bedroom in fear, Joffe has some advice that will help eliminate the risks of sleep deprivation.
“Avoid stimulants like alcohol, caffeine, and smoking which are very disruptive to the sleep cycle. Then there are what we in sleep medicine call ‘sleep hygiene’ such as considering whether the room is dark enough and whether it is necessary to have a television in the bedroom,” he says.
He also suggests leaving your work away from the bedroom as well as your smartphones and tablets.
“The iPhone, iPad and a tablet of any kind, all have strong backlights which can suppress sleep hormones,” he says.
So the next time you consider staying up that extra hour for work emails or playing candy crush on your phone, remember it is more than just the sleep time you are risking.. Book an eight hour date with your bed, the the experts are unanimous on this one.