How to Get Healthier by Doing Less
Here is a piece of health advice that is simple and well within everyone’s capability. It has incredible benefits: It makes you mentally sharper; increases your ability to concentrate; has a huge effect on your performance in physical exertion like sports or hard work; makes you a more focused worker. On top of all that, it is very likely an underestimated key to character development.
I’m talking about your bedtime.
Forty-three percent of Americans between ages 13 and 64 say they rarely or never get a good night’s sleep on weeknights. In related news, Americans drink, on average, three 12-ounce caffeinated beverages every weekday.
Why is it so hard for so many of us to get to bed at a reasonable hour? There are a lot of things pressuring you to go to bed late, or to distract you from turning out the light when you should. Most of them have an on-off switch.
The advice: Go to bed when you know you should. For different people, that will be somewhat different. But the costs of staying up late are higher than you think.
The Trouble With Sleep Deprivation
Are you sleep deprived? You might be if you: need an alarm clock in order to wake up on time; rely on the snooze button; have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning; fall asleep while reading; feel sluggish in the afternoon; get sleepy in meetings, lectures or warm rooms; get drowsy after heavy meals or when driving; need to nap to get through the day; fall asleep while watching tv or relaxing in the evening; feel the need to sleep in on weekends; fall asleep within five minutes of going to bed.
Researchers have found links between sleep deprivation and an inability to focus on tasks; reduced ability to read other people’s facial expressions of anger or happiness; a decrease in the brain’s ability to concentrate, resulting in more mistakes; poor grades; an increased likelihood of weight gain; reduced ability to fight infections. Over time, forcing the body to stay awake also affects blood pressure and levels of inflammation, resulting in an increased susceptibility to heart disease and cancer. Even minimal sleep loss takes a toll on your mood, energy and ability to handle stress.
Sleep deprivation is linked to increased sadness and depression. Susan Redline, professor of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston, found links between sleep deprivation and the onset of brain disorders such as anxiety and bipolar depression. University of Delaware psychologist Brad Wolgast said, “When you find depression, even when you find anxiety, when you scratch the surface, 80 to 90 percent of the time you find a sleep problem as well.”
Some people pride themselves on performing well on less sleep. Research shows that in many cases, they’re probably right—sometimes. A 2008 study by the Society for Neuroscience found that a sleep-deprived person can often deliver the same results as a well-rested person, but—here’s the interesting part—that he can’t sustain it because he can’t maintain focus.
Sleep deprived or not, we all lose focus at times. Get enough sleep, and your brain can compensate for that fuzzy moment and increase its attention. When we are sleep deprived, though, our brain has trouble refocusing. “The main finding is that the brain of the sleep-deprived individual is working normally sometimes, but intermittently suffers from something akin to power failure,” Dr. Clifford Saper of Harvard University explained. This study said, “[I]ndividuals who are sleep deprived experience periods of near-normal brain function … interspersed with severe drops in attention and visual processing. … [D]uring attentional lapses, the sleep-deprived brain enters a sleep-like state.” It’s like your body compensates for the lack of sleep by taking micro-naps.
These micro-naps likely account for this recent discovery: that for every lost hour of uninterrupted sleep, workers engage in 12 more minutes per hour of cyberloafing—using company time to check personal e-mails and visit non-work-related websites. In other words, when sleepy, we’re far more easily distracted.
In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 30 percent of the civilian workforce—40.6 million Americans—were not getting enough sleep. Harvard scientists estimated in 2011 that sleep deprivation costs U.S. companies $63.2 billion in lost productivity each year, mainly because of “presenteeism” (as opposed to absenteeism)—people showing up but turning in subpar work.
‘I’m Doing Just Fine’
What makes this effect even worse is that sleep-deprived people don’t notice their decrease in performance. As the 2008 study found, “The periods of apparently normal functioning could give a false sense of competency and security”—when actually our brain’s inconsistency could really hurt us.
This effect links with another. Research at Harvard and Berkeley has revealed an amazing side effect of pulling an all-nighter: short-term euphoria. A sleepless night increases your body’s dopamine levels, which might actually boost your motivation and positivity. The down side is that the dopamine boost is brief, and this chemical surge encourages addiction and impulsive behavior. When you are deprived of sleep, the regions of the brain responsible for planning and evaluating decisions simply shut down. This means you’re more inclined to be overly optimistic and happy to take risks.
The pathway where dopamine travels is called the mesolimbic pathway. Some research indicates that frequent overstimulation of that pathway by sleep deprivation can cause permanent brain damage. The brain’s neural plasticity—its ability to adapt to new situations—fades. When forced to operate in a different state regularly, it permanently alters itself. “Frequent sleep deprivation over four years can have drastic long-term consequences, unleashing a neurological cycle of degeneration” (Guardian Unlimited, May 3, 2014).
If you’re a student tempted to pull an all-nighter before an exam, consider: Researchers have found last-minute cramming does more harm than good. Deep sleep is when you consolidate memories. During sleep, the brain crunches information, processing what you have learned over the previous week. If you don’t get enough, your brain doesn’t get that important learning time. And all-nighters actually weaken the mental circuits responsible for memory. Plan ahead so you won’t have to resort to the all-nighter.
You Must Get Sleep
This brings up a rather remarkable point. God made us to need sleep—a certain amount of sleep. Have you ever thought about why? God pulls all-nighters all the time—He never sleeps! (Isaiah 40:28). But He created us so that we have to take this break of several hours, every day.
There were likely several reasons, but perhaps the biggest was to help keep us humble: to help us realize how limited we are as human beings. It truly can be frustrating when you have a lot to accomplish but know that if you push yourself too hard, you will get sick and break down.
Amazingly, though, while you sleep, your brain is very busy! In fact, it is performing a host of biological maintenance jobs that keep your body running in top condition, preparing you for the day ahead. As John Steinbeck once said, “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”
Research shows that the average 12-to-18-year-old needs 8.5 to 10 hours of sleep each night. The average adult over age 18 needs 7 to 9 hours. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, discovered that some few people possess a gene that enables them to do well on six hours of sleep a night. Sadly, this gene only shows up in less than 3 percent of the population. For the other 97 percent of us, six hours doesn’t come close to cutting it!
Some believe they can catch up on lost sleep over the weekend. It simply isn’t true. In fact, sleeping late on Saturdays only lets your sleep clock drift later, making it even harder to wake up on Monday, according to the book Chronotherapy by Dr. Michael Terman and Ian McMahan.
Studies have also shown that women need a tad bit more sleep than men. The average is 20 minutes more, but some women may need slightly more or less than this. Why? In his book Sleepfaring: A Journey Through the Science of Sleep, Jim Horne explains that it is because women’s brains are wired differently from men’s and are more complex, so their sleep needs are slightly greater.
So what do you do? Few of us have the option of sleeping in indefinitely. Our real choice comes several hours before that—at bedtime.We must go to bed on time. In so many respects, our quality of life depends on it!
It’s Not Too Late!
According to biblical reckoning, the day starts at night (e.g. Genesis 1:5). The evening is the beginning of the day. So take care about what you do at night: You are setting yourself up for what you will do for the next day.
If you stay up late, how are you spending that time? It is easy to waste it chatting with friends, surfing the Internet, or watching tv. By contrast, when you wake early in the morning, what do you do? Perhaps work out, shower, pray, study the Bible, and eat a relaxed breakfast. Getting up earlier can truly bring a number of benefits. The early riser is generally on his way to a more successful life (Proverbs 20:13).
The facts prove how essential a good night’s sleep is. No matter your age, it’s not too late to get on a routine and get proper sleep by going to bed early enough. Don’t let sleep deprivation and lack of mental focus weigh you down. Get enough sleep so you can stay focused, be more productive, think sharper, and live life with vitality. Don’t stay up late! Remember the benefits, make the right choice, and go to bed!