The Dangers of Skimping on Sleep

Work, errands, exercise, kids and more: for many of us, most days feel like a marathon – there’s just far too much to do and too few hours in which to do it. So what do we do to cope?

Increasingly, we’re robbing ourselves of sleep in order to squeeze a few more precious hours out of the day. The numbers are nothing short of alarming: research shows that 30% of Canadian adults get fewer than six hours of sleep a night and 60% of Canadians say they feel tired most of the time, according to a report by the World Association of Sleep Medicine. About 20% of Americans report getting less than six hours of sleep a night, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Meanwhile, experts recommend between seven and nine hours of sleep each night for most adults.

woman sleeping

While many of us view skimping on sleep as necessary in order to deal with the demands of our busy lives, this is in fact harming us more than we may realize.

In the short-term, getting too few hours of shut-eye every night makes us feel anxious, drowsy, distracted, can lead to decreased performance at work and increases our chances of getting into a car accident.

The long-term effects of chronic sleep deprivation are frightening, and include the possibility of an earlier death. Studies show that people who get fewer hours of sleep are at greater risk for heart disease and heart attacks. Research also shows a link between a consistent lack of sleep and a higher risk of being overweight or obese. Other long-term consequences of repeatedly clocking too few hours of sleep include mood disorders such as depression, high blood pressure and being at greater risk for strokes.

If you still think of yourself as a superhuman who can get by on a few scant hours of sleep a night, consider this: a hamster kept awake for three days will die. And for a 1964 Stanford University study, a high-school student stayed awake for just over 11 days. By the end, he couldn’t speak. A good night of sleep isn’t a luxury, although increasingly we seem to view it this way – it can literally be a matter of life or death.

Establishing a sleep routine

Firstly, we need to create the conditions for a good night of rest. Experts recommend establishing consistent sleep and wake schedules, creating relaxing bedtime routines (goodbye, TV and Facebook – hello, warm bath and music), ensuring we go to bed in an environment conducive to sleep (think dark, quiet, comfortable and cool), finishing any snacking about two to three hours before bedtime and avoiding caffeine or alcohol before we turn in for the night.

If you find that you experience symptoms that prevent you from getting a good night of sleep (for instance, difficultly breathing at night or leg cramps) or if you find you’re always sleepy during the day, you should consult your physician. They can help you resolve any underlying health issues, paving the way for you to get the sleep you need to function optimally.

Though we live in a society that expects us to be “on” 24/7, we also need to start prioritizing sleep. Just as we schedule work and other commitments or tasks into our daily lives, it’s crucial that we put sleep at the top of our to-do list. We must view it as being just as important as whatever else we’re cramming into our allotted 24 hours. And if this means squeezing one less thing into the day, so be it. There’s always tomorrow.

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