Snooze or Lose: The True Cost of Sleep Loss

“If we don’t continue to chip away at our collective delusion that burnout is the price we must pay for success, we’ll never be able to restore sleep to its rightful place in our lives” 

— Arianna Huffington 

Last week, during one of our team’s weekly science calls, I discovered that my co-founder and I are reading the same book: Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. The book details the importance of sleep on our health and wellbeing, two things we’re big champions of at Allergy Amulet!

Given the emphasis on wellness and health this time of year, and since many of us are still slowly emerging from holiday hibernation, sleep seemed like a timely topic for today’s post. 

First, you should know that Walker is a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and has spent the past two decades trying to crack one of science’s greatest enigmas: why humans sleep. 

Some eye-opening stats to kick things off: 

  • One night of 4-5 hours of sleep can deplete the body’s natural production of cancer-fighting immune cells by 70%.

  • Routinely sleeping less than 6-7 hours a night can more than double your risk of cancer. 

  • Among individuals who were sleep deprived, brain scans revealed a 60% amplification in reactivity of the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain which contributes to our fight-or-flight response and emotional triggers like anger and rage. 

  • Not getting enough sleep is a key determinant in whether you will develop Alzheimer’s disease.

  • Studies have found that working night shifts, which disrupts circadian rhythms, increases your chances of developing certain types of cancer.  

  • A 2013 study reported that men who got too little sleep had a sperm count 29% lower than their well-rested counterparts.

  • Insufficient sleep decreases levels of a hormone that signals satiation (leptin), increases levels of a hormone that triggers hunger (ghrelin), and elevates levels of a stress hormone that produces fat (cortisol). In other words, if your resolution is to shed a few pounds this year, but you’ll be hitting the gym at the crack of dawn to fit in your workouts, you may want to sleep instead.  

Despite these stats, approximately two-thirds of adults in developed nations do not get the recommended eight hours of sleep, and the average American only sleeps 6.5 hours each night. Yikes!

“There does not seem to be one major organ within the body, or process within the brain, that isn’t optimally enhanced by sleep (and detrimentally impaired when we don’t get enough).”

Matthew Walker 

Children are perhaps most acutely affected by lack of sleep, as their brains are still developing until age 21. Sleep during those formative years is that much more important as a result. Unfortunately, half of all adolescents get less than seven hours of sleep on weeknights. 

Research also shows a critical link between sleep and academic performance, and schools are starting to wake up to this fact. Many are now introducing later start times, as studies have shown that starting classes even just one hour later has led to stronger academic performance and higher test scores. 

While reading the bit on kids, I thought of Aesop’s fable about the tortoise and the hare—the tortoise, of course, wins the race despite being the slower of the two. As a society, should we rethink how we measure academic performance, progress, and intelligence? What if education systems that fostered a slower and steadier approach to learning, with fewer hours in the classroom and more hours in bed, actually produced better outcomes?

If the above research wasn’t reason enough to get back in bed, here’s another: your relationships. In a study of 43 couples, those that had less than seven hours of sleep each night were more likely to engage in hostile arguments. Stress from these fights produced higher levels of inflammatory proteins linked to chronic diseases like diabetes. Studies also show that men are more likely to fight with their partners after one night of disturbed sleep. 

In the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, hopefully, this next decade ushers in a greater appreciation for sleep, and that our business leaders, educators, and politicians wake up (after a long sleep) and listen to the scientists. 

Wishing you all health, happiness, and some much-needed snoozing this new year.  

– Abi & the Allergy Amulet Team

Statistics and studies referenced in this article can be found in Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker or are otherwise hyperlinked. 

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