Why do we have to sleep? Is it just another form of procrastination or is there something more detrimental about it? The consequences of lack of sleep are quite severe and even scary. This article will tell you what poor sleep does to your body and mind.
Why You Have to Sleep
During our waking hours, we’re experiencing a ton of various stressors that stimulate our body and mind in some way. Our muscles, organs and nerves require energy to carry out all bodily processes. Breathing, blood flow, heart beats and digestion are all working constantly. The brain is also a non-stop processing machine that works on the subconscious level as well.
In order for our entire system to recover, we have to give it a short break from everything it does. This can really ever happen when we’re sleeping.
In essence, sleep is the state of rest and recovery. It’s the moment when we retire for the day and switch off our constantly wired up brain and allow the body to repair itself. Additionally, it cools us and restores our energy.
Sleep recharges our batteries and allows us to go even harder the next time.
Some Sleep Science
Sleep is more than just empty time we spend lying in our bed. The brain is in a dynamic state with some periods of high activity and is not simply shut off. It undergoes intense neurological activity, such as memory consolidation, neurochemical cleansing and cognitive maintenance, muscle recovery and enhancement.
We have to delve into some science, so put on your scientists’ hat. It will only be for a moment, so bare with me.
There are 2 main types of sleep with characteristic brain wave patterns and activities.
- Non-rapid-eye-movement (NREM) sleep is anything that is not REM sleep. It consists of 3 separate stages.
- The first is NREM1 between drowsy wakefulness and sleep, in which your muscles are still quite active and you may occasionally open your eyes.
- In NREM2 your muscle activity keeps decreasing and you start to slowly fade away into sleep.
- Stage 3 (NREM3) is the deep or slow-wave sleep characterized by delta brain waves of 0.5-4 Hz. In here, you are cut off from the conscious world around you and irresponsive to most sounds or other stimuli.
- Rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep is a phase characterized by random movement of the eyes, low muscle tone and the possibility of lucid dreaming. It allows us to learn complex tasks. This is where the magic happens. One cycle of REM usually takes about 70-90 minutes depending on the length of overall sleep and comprises 20-25% of total night’s volume.
Without going through these cycles, the brain wouldn’t be able to conduct the repair mechanisms it needs to do in order to recover.
Physical Consequences of Lack of Sleep on the Body
- Causes serious health problems and bad biomarkers, such as increased blood pressure, higher stress hormone levels, greater risk of diabetes[i], heart attacks and irregular heartbeat. Even one night of poor recovery can make your blood sugar levels equal to that of a type-2 diabetic[ii]. People with insomnia have a 90% chance of suffering any other health condition.
- Increased risk of fibromyalgia, which is a medical condition of chronic widespread pain and heightened pain response to pressure[iii]. You’ll also have muscle aches and constant soreness[iv]. And of course, headaches.
- Gives you nystagmus, which is rapid involuntary rhythmic eye movement[v]. Quite uncomfortable.
- Baggy eyes, or periorbital puffiness, is a hint towards minor sleep deprivation. Minor dark circles and some bags under your eyes. In more severe cases your eyes will drown completely into your skull. There’s a reason why the sleeping beauty was called as such.
- Makes you fat. Sleep deprivation makes your body more susceptible to gaining weight[vi].
- Promotes seizures and epilepsy[vii]. You may become more “twitchy”
- Increased risk of disease. We’ll have a weakened immune system which makes us more prone to cold and other illnesses[viii].
- Hormonal malfunctioning. It decreases your testosterone and leads to lower libido in both men and women. Human growth hormone actually gets released during the first hours of our sleep which is incredibly important for building tissue and maintaining leanness. Missing out on this constantly makes you gain weight and lose strength.
Lack of sleep releases cortisol that is the catabolic stress hormone. As a result, we will not be able to recover from our activities and keep on creating a deficit. Our body will begin to break down its muscle and accumulate fat. It also accelerates aging and makes our skin more wrinkled and dry.
Effects of Poor Sleep on the Brain
- Confusion, memory lapses or losses[ix][x]. It can also create false memories with you getting random mental images, as if you were dreaming while being awake. That’s like Alzheimer’s flipped upside down.
- The next step are hallucinations[xi]. You’ll go woo-hoo in the head.
- Quite literally. Psychosis, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses are linked to sleep deprivation[xii].
- Causes depression[xiii]. Feeling tired will make us groggier and lose our enthusiasm about life. With no energy, we will become more anxious and lose our temper more often. It doesn’t feel very good to not have the desire to do anything. Our default state of mind is happiness and we want to actually be enjoying ourselves so that we could perform at a higher level.
- Reduced mental abilities. Poor sleep reduces brain activity in the thalamus and prefrontal cortex[xiv]. Our concentration decreases and we won’t be able to perform as well at cognitive tasks involving memory, intelligence, problem solving and focus. Creativity is also impaired[xv], which is depressive for any person. In animal studies, the increased stress hormones will also kill brain cells and prevent neurogenesis[xvi].
Sacrificing sleep time for working or studying actually makes us less productive. Even a few days of not getting enough sleep leads to the same performance drop-off as not having slept for 24 hours. Our reaction time diminishes and we lose our situational awareness. We will suffer poor decision making abilities and reduced alertness.
You’ll Die, If You Don’t Sleep, and Can Kill Others
If those consequences don’t scare you enough, then this one might. Sleeping less than 5 hours a night increases your chances of dying by about 15%[xvii]. The grim reaper will be looming over your shoulder and can easily cash in on your life. Whether that be a sudden heart attack, the accumulation of poor health markers or falling off stairs and breaking your neck.
If not for your own concerns, then at least consider the safety of others. Not enough sleep has played quite a big role in many tragic accidents and events that involve airplanes, ships and even nuclear reactor meltdowns[xviii]. *Another Black Swan crashing into a metropolitan center. The pilots not drunk nor terrorists – simply under-slept.
Microsleeps are brief occasions, where you lose attention and doze off[xix]. Blank staring, head snapping and closing your eyes for a long time are due because of you trying to stay awake while being fatigued. They last from a few seconds to two minutes without you even being aware of them.
An estimate of 1 in 25 adult drivers report having fallen asleep while driving, not ever, but in the last 30 days[xx]. How scary is that? Imagine how many tired drivers constantly doze off in traffic. One moment you’re cruising on the highway, another you’re happily dreaming in wonderland. Drowsy driving is not only dangerous but also irresponsible.
The Walking Dead Epidemic
Our type-A personalities and the overall understanding about success is making us think negatively about rest. Unless you’re constantly doing something and running around you’re procrastinating, right? Wrong answer.
Slogans like “Work hard, play hard,” “Sleep is for the weak,” “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” are very widespread and thought of as a part of hustling hard. It’s actually nonsense and people don’t realize that such mindset may cause you an earlier death.
Thomas Edison, who started this cult of sleep deprivation, thanks to inventing the lightbulb, thought of it as a waste of time. He usually worked for 20 hours straight and slept only 4 – “thrived on it.” Having triumphed over sleep, he still got diabetes and died.
As you can see, not sleeping enough has serious consequences on everything we do. It destroys our joy for life, reduces performance and makes us an uncomfortable person to be around. Poor sleep degrades our performance and prevents us from ever reaching our highest potential.
It turns us into a ZOMBIE – a walking dead corpse who doesn’t look nor feel good.
Quality Over Quantity
Productivity does not lie in how much we do but how well we do it. Quality far greatly exceeds quantity and we’re not like hamsters running in a wheel. It’s about hustling smarter not harder like a maniac.
The better our sleep the better the quality of our overall wakeful life will be as well.
But this doesn’t mean that you’ll be better off by sleeping 10-12 hours. In fact, it can have reversed effects. There’s going to be a point of diminishing returns, after which you won’t gain anything and can potentially lose your benefits. Quality over quantity, which is why Edison managed to thrive on just 4 hours a night. He simply deprived himself for too long.
The most optimal amount is 7-9 hours of good quality sleep. But this requires thorough optimization and strategy. It’s about sleeping smarter not longer, which will allow you to do it faster. Read this blog post about how to improve the quality of your sleep.
[iv] Morin, Charles M. (2003). Insomnia. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publ. p. 28 death.
[xv] Home, J.A. (1988) Sleep loss and “divergent” thinking ability. Sleep: Journal of Sleep Research & Sleep Medicine 11;6, pp. 528–536.