It’s an all too familiar struggle: cramming in a little more studying for your final tomorrow, working a double shift and getting home as the sun is rising, up all night with a baby that just won’t settle. Regardless the cause, I think it’s safe to say everyone has experienced at least one night in their life where they got way too little (or no) sleep.
What follows this sleepless night? The ‘lack-of-sleep hangover’. You stare at the same words on the page for what seems like an eternity – taking in nothing. The doughnuts in the breakroom that you can normally convince yourself not to eat are consumed in astonishing quantities. A coffee (or three) keeps you awake, but you’re far from alert. Effectively, the day after a serious lack of sleep is basically a wright-off.
So that’s one epic all-nighter. For most of us, those are relatively few and far-between (for good reason!). But most of us get less than 7-9 hours that we need for peak function in our daily lives. Yes, this varies from person to person, but it’s pretty safe to say, the person you know who says “5 hours of sleep is plenty for me” is probably lying. Research has actually shown that ‘neurobehavioral deficits accumulate across days of partial sleep loss to levels equivalent to those found after 1 to 3 nights of total sleep loss’ (see this cool paper for a review of this research). What does that mean? If you spend multiple nights (every week day for example) not sleeping as much as you should (maybe 6 instead of 8 hours a night) your brain gets just as bamboozled as if you had stayed up all night.
When you are missing out on sleep, whether from one all-nighter or a handful of 5-hour nights, without the proper recovery your body starts doing all sorts of weird things. First and foremost, you feel sleepy, which, in addition to feeling pretty blah and causing you to drink way too much coffee (actually making things worse), affects your ability to do just about anything. Your attention is scattered, your cortisol levels are elevated, your body’s ability to form memories goes wonky, your ability to fend off infection tanks, and your ability to regulate blood sugar levels goes out the window, just to name a few of the unpleasant side-effects.
So we all need to be honest with ourselves about how much sleep we need (no… you don’t only need 5 hours…) and do our best to actually get that much!