An hour shaved from shuteye here, twenty minutes there. What are the dangers of insomnia? The cost might be larger than you think. When a team at the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar evaluated the sleep patterns of over 500 participants over the course of a year, they calculated that those with sleep debt were 72% more likely to be obese than their counterparts. Their chance of developing type 2 diabetes jumped by 39%. These findings are consistent with numerous other studies mapping the effects of sleep insufficiency with insulin resistance. But what’s surprising about this particular study is even seemingly small losses add up. With only half an hour less sleep a night, the likelihood for obesity went up a surprising 17%.1
In addition to insulin resistance and diabetes, insufficient sleep has been tied to higher rates of hypertension, heart failure, stroke, and depression. And that’s just one set of costs. Poor sleep can also take its toll on your physical safety, your work productivity, and even your personal relationships.
Playing it Safe
Some experts suggest that driving while drowsy can be as hazardous as driving while drunk. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 15 to 20% of all fatal vehicular accidents are tied to sleepy drivers. In one study overseen by a group of neurology researchers in Switzerland, the rate of car accidents among those who suffer from sleep apnea syndrome was over four times higher than that of the general population. Among participants with the most severe apnea, the rates were as much as 13 times higher still.2 Short-term tactics like turning to caffeine, decreasing the temperature in the car, playing the radio, or even pulling over for a short nap might offer some relief in a pinch, but none of these compare to the importance of resetting your entire sleep routine.
And of course safety risks don’t end at the road. Accidents of all kinds can increase in the home or in the workplace. When we’re sleepy, our reaction times are stunted; our decision making is less precise; our memory becomes fuzzy; and our focus is muted. Work quality suffers, and in the case of certain fields such as air traffic control or my own field of medicine, the stakes for such mistakes can be high. And not all mistakes worth noting are “life and death;” a poorly rested workforce is just not as efficient. The consequences can range from slow work times to mistakes that have to be fixed later. That’s not to mention lost productivity from sick days tied to insufficient sleep. The exact cost to companies is difficult to measure and often depends on self-reporting, but many independent studies suggest numbers in the thousands of dollars for each overtired employee.
Of course, poor sleep habits affect more than just your professional life. There hasn’t been enough research on how insomnia affects mood disorders, but some studies — such as one organized by the Department of Radiology at the Harvard Medical Study using MRI brain scans3 — show a clear connection between a decrease in sleep and an increase in negative thoughts. And I can speak from personal experience. During my battle with sleep issues I would become more irritable and impatient with my family, my friends, and even my coworkers. And when I’d hit a setback, I didn’t bounce back as easily. Quality sleep has made a huge difference in the quality of my own relationships.
And to make the mood issues worse, as we become sleepy we often become listless. We spurn physical activity, healthy foods, and leisure activities in favor of the more passive pastimes and quick-fix high-sugar / high-fat foods. And of course, this only compounds the problem. Less activity means diminished sleep. Our mood might suffer, which in turn will exacerbate our issues with sleep. Depression and insomnia are comorbid, meaning you often find one alongside the other and it’s not clear which causes which. But there is a way out of this cycle. And it starts with sleep optimization.
After embarking on my journey to help people reach peak performance in all aspects of their lives, I realized we weren’t going to get very far until we addressed the issue of sleep first. We all know that better sleep is… well… better. But what can we do about it? Let today’s post be a wake-up call. Make change now, starting with suggestions from my recent blog posts. Get sunlight and physical activity daily but avoid both right before bed. Cultivate mindfulness-based stress reduction using tools like meditation and exercises with the breath. Create a relaxing sleep environment by turning your attention to the comfort, temperature, light, and sound levels of your bedroom. Support good sleep habits with vitamins and supplements and build them into your routine.
Then, pay attention. Nurture a regular sleep routine and keep track of what works for you and what doesn’t by using a sleep log. For example, do you sleep better when you avoid food two hours before sleep? Do you need a light but protein-rich snack just before lights out to help stabilize your blood sugar throughout the night?
Do all this and encourage others in your life — from loved ones to coworkers — to do the same. Sleep loss isn’t just an individual problem. It’s a problem that has far reaching consequences for all of us. Make work a priority by making sleep a higher priority. Steer clear of late night emails when they’re not absolutely necessary; rekindle interests outside of the office; and emphasize clear work/life boundaries. All this translates to better sleep when we’re off the clock and more focus and productivity when we’re on the clock. And when we do face unexpected challenges, from health issues to job crises, they’re more easily navigated when we’re well slept. Let’s face it. Nearly all of us would benefit from sweeter shuteye.
1. Taheri, S., Arora, T., Cooper, A., Andrews, R., Chen, M. (2015). “Losing 30 Minutes of Sleep Per Day May Promote Weight Gain and Adversely Affect Blood Sugar Control.” Endocrinology Society Annual Meeting: San Diego, CA. Retrieved on http://www.newswise.com/articles/losing-30-minutes-of-sleep-per-
2. Horstmann, S., Hess, C.W., Bassetti, C., Gugger, M., and Mathis, J (2000). “Sleepiness-Related Accidents in Sleep Apnea Patients.” Sleep 23 (3): 1-7. Retrieved on http://arimahealth.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/OSAhighriskofMVAs.pdf
3. Yoo, S., Gujar, N., Hu, P., Jolesz, F. A., and Walker, M.P. (2007). “The human emotional brain without sleep — a prefrontal amygdala disconnect.” Current Biology 17 (20): R877–R878. Retrieved on http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982207017836