Five Reasons Not to Subscribe to the Sleep Deprivation Culture

Monday, February 12, 2018
Catherine Morin

Many people consider adequate sleep as a key part of a healthy lifestyle. However, with 63% of Americans not meeting their sleep needs each week, sleep deprivation is now a widespread public health concern.

According to many scientists, lack of rest exacts a terrible toll on physical and mental health, and is frequently the root cause of decreased performance at work. Yet, several business leaders affirm that they have to sacrifice sleep time to ensure their productivity and success.

Observing demonstrated benefits of good quality sleep can help understand its usefulness better.

Social Phenomenon

With scientific advances, people are more informed than ever of the importance of getting a sufficient amount of sleep. However, two-thirds of adults in developed nations fail to obtain the nightly seven to nine hours of sleep recommended by the National Sleep Foundation.

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Americans sleep about two hours less each night than they did a century ago, and one in five American adults show signs of chronic sleep deprivation.

The advent of electricity in the 20th century changed our relationship to light and dark, and introduced serious new challenges to sleep. Light exposure at night disrupts circadian rhythm (the body’s internal clock), and delays the onset of the body’s transition to sleep.

The widespread use of digital devices with screens significantly increases exposure to artificial light, causing more alterations in sleep patterns.

People tend to work longer hours nowadays. Not wanting to give up time with friends or family, many professionals cut down on rest instead.

The rise in mental health issues can also explain why people do not sleep as much as they used to, since disorders like anxiety and depression cause serious sleep problems.

In contemporary society, sleep is often associated with weakness, even shame. “We have stigmatized sleep with the label of laziness. We want to seem busy, and one way we express that is by proclaiming how little sleep we’re getting”, explains Matthew Walker, director of the Center for Human Sleep at the University of California.

He frequently meets people who are embarrassed to say they need eight or nine hours of sleep. They think they are abnormal, while in reality they only sleep sufficient amounts.

Many workplaces seem to promote a culture of sleep deprivation. Professionals deal with increased workloads, stress and time-shifting, all of which undermine sleep length and quality. Sleep seems to be considered a waste of time and an obstacle to productivity by many.

The “Sleepless Elite”

It can be assumed that this perception of sleep is reinforced by some prosperous executives and leaders who tout their lack of sleep as the key to their success. Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo! and former Google executive, is known to sleep four hours a night so she can allegedly work 130 hours each week.

Other successful business leaders have similar sleep habits:

Twitter founder and Square CEO, Jack Dorsey, gets up at 5:30 every morning to take a jog after sleeping four or five hours

PepsiCo CEO, Indra Nooyi, sleeps four hours a night

— Martha Stewart, founder of Martha Stewart Omnimedia, sleeps less than four hours per night

Gucci fashion designer and director, Tom Ford sleeps three hours a night

These sleep patterns are consistent with individuals of a condition known as “short sleeping”. Naturally short sleepers, a group the Wall Street Journal once named the “sleepless elite”, live happily on just a few hours of sleep per night.

These people wake up well rested and ready for the day after sleeping less than five hours, and are usually energetic and upbeat. Scientists estimate they make up only about 1% to 3% of the population.

Although many people claim they can get by with just a few hours of rest, most of them are not real short sleepers - They are simply sleep-deprived. 

While a very few successful leaders are genetically fortunate to require only three or four hours of sleep per night, many force themselves to sleep less, and are apparently really good at concealing the effects of tiredness. Given the extent of their achievements, it can be assumed that sleep should be sacrificed for the sake of performance and productivity.

Lack of sleep can, however, have consequences on even the most successful people. In 2014, Marissa Mayer missed an important dinner with chief executives due to an overdue nap, after being awake for 20 hours.

Sleep and Success

Several successful people regularly get a full night’s sleep. Co-founder and editor of Huffington Post Arianna Huffington advocates for a renewed emphasis on the importance of sleeping enough.

In her latest book “The Sleep Revolution” (2016), she exposes the dangers of modern-day attitude towards sleep, and explains why getting sufficient rest is vital to physical and mental health. “Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution,” she writes, “we have treated sleep like some dull, distant relative we visit only reluctantly and out of obligation, for as short a time as we can manage.”

Image credit: Penguin / Randomhouse

Huffington collapsed from exhaustion in 2007. She considers this experience as a wake-up call that forced her to question the kind of life she was living. Since the incident, she has made sleep her number one priority, and considers adequate rest time as the key to her success.

She urges sleep-deprived people to take an honest look at their schedule and consider whether they could pick up extra rest by limiting their screen time, especially their social media usage.

Tesla and SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said in an interview that his mental acuities drop at a certain treshold of sleep. He strives for an average of six hours of sleep per night.

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On top of his executive roles with SpaceX, Tesla, SolarCity and OpenAI, Musk has time to take care of his five sons, play video games, and brainstorm big ideas, and still manages to sleep a decent amount. If someone as busy as him can sleep six hours per night, it is possible to assume that the average American can easily find time to sleep the recommended seven to eight hours.

Science-Based Benefits of Sleep

Such polarized opinions on sleep habits among highly successful people can be a little confusing. Examining five main benefits of sleep that have been demonstrated by scientists in the recent years can help develop a rational outlook on its usefulness.

1. Better Physical Health

In recent years, numerous studies have shown a connection between quality of sleep and physical condition.

Adequate sleep supports the immune system. Several disease-fighting substances are released or created during sleep. 

These hormones, proteins, and chemicals are crucial in fighting off bacterial and viral infections. Lack of sleep decreases the availability of these substances, leaving you more susceptible to each new virus and bacteria. 

This can also cause you to be ill for a longer period of time, as your body lacks the resources to properly fight what is making you sick. Chronic sleep deprivation makes you more likely to take sick leave and take a long time to recover, which can potentially damage your career.

Getting good quality sleep is essential for a healthy heart. Insufficient rest increases your risk of hypertension, coronary artery disease, heart attack, stroke, and death from cardiovascular disease.

A study conducted at Harvard Medical School reveals that individuals who sleep less than 6 hours per night have higher blood levels of stress hormones and substances that indicate inflammation, which are key players in cardiovascular disease. 

To function properly, your heart needs adequate rest time. Heart rate declines during sleep, producing a natural drop in blood pressure. Lower blood pressure means your heart does not need to work as hard to pump blood throughout the vessels.

Sleep also significantly improves significantly improves oxygenation, a process that raises oxygen level in all of the body’s systems. Since oxygen is necessary to keep the heart well, enhanced oxygenation is crucial in supporting cardiovascular health.

Sufficient sleep time is a key in maintaining a healthy weight and preventing obesity. Lack of sleep may alter the hormones that control hunger.

A study carried out by researchers at Harvard's School of Public Health found that young men who were sleep-deprived had higher levels of the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin and lower rates of the satiety-inducing hormone leptin, with a corresponding increased appetite.

Insufficient sleep can also reduce energy expenditure. People who do not sleep enough are more tired during the day, and as a result do not engage in much physical activity.

Sleep loss reduces insulin sensitivity, which is the metabolic capacity to use glucides for energy instead of storing them as fat. 

2. Better Mental Health

Getting enough sleep puts you in a good mood and makes you more able to cope with daily life and face challenges. Sleep deprivation can make you feel depressedanxious, and less able to rationalize worries and negative thoughts.

If you are exhausted, you may not want to socialize and interact with other people, which can make you feel lonely or isolated over time.

Chronic lack of sleep can eventually cause depression, or exacerbate existing mental disorders. For example, someone who suffers from bipolar disorder may experience mania or psychosis.

3. Improved Focus

Sleep enhances cognitive abilities. Researchers at University of Wisconsin found sleep increases the reproduction of cells that form the insulating material known as myelin, which is essential for the brain to function properly.

Sufficient rest helps you focus, solve problems, and remember important information. It is easier to keep your attention on a task for an elongated period of time. When you are sleep-deprived, you make more mistakes and are less productive at work.

Lack of sleep can also impair your judgement. Your interpretation of events is affected, and you are unable to make sound decisions. It becomes extremely hard to assess a given situation accurately, and to choose the correct behavior accordingly.

Tiredness can result in poor workplace performance, because you will most probably take longer to complete tasks, struggle to stay focused in meetings, and find it hard to generate new ideas.

4. Better Memory

By strengthening connections between brain cells and transferring information from one brain region to another, sleep plays a significant role in consolidating memory.

While your body rests, your brain converts recently encoded facts into memories.

Without adequate sleep, over-worked neurons can no longer coordinate data properly, and you lose your ability to access previously learned information. 

5. Reduced Stress

Adequate sleep helps control levels of cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone. When you are under stress, cortisol raises your blood pressure and blood sugar.

These changes help you survive short periods of stress, but can cause serious damage if they are constantly triggered by daily-life stress. Chronically high cortisol levels have been associated with hypertension, heart disease, insulin resistance, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.

Lack of sleep can contribute to overall anxiety and stress. People who do not get sufficient sleep tend to have repetitive pessimistic thoughts that they feel unable to control.

Researchers at Binghamton University, in the United Kingdom, found that individuals who sleep less than seven hours per night have more negative thoughts and often worry excessively.

Improving Your Sleep

Internet overflows with tips to get better sleep, but the efficiency of many of them has not been proven. The following advice, often given by health professionals, has shown positive results in several studies, and seems to apply to contemporary society.

Image Credit: lilieshaven 

Optimizing Light Exposure

In the morning, bright sunlight signals to your body that it is time to wake up. At night, as the sun sets, darkness should send a message to your body that it is time to sleep.

Light exposure at the wrong times alters your circadian system. Getting a few minutes of natural light early in the day can, however, reinforce your body’s sleep-wake cycle.

Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York found that people who were exposed to greater amounts of light during morning hours fell asleep more quickly and had fewer sleep disturbances than those exposed to low light in the morning.

Image Credit: Business Insider

Avoiding Stimulants

Caffeine is a powerful stimulant that can keep you awake. It is better to avoid caffeinated products such as coffee, tea, chocolate, or cola for four to six hours before bedtime.

Even though alcohol may help bring on sleep, it starts acting as a stimulant a few hours later. Ingesting alcohol too close to bedtime generally decreases the quality of sleep later in the night. You should refrain from drinking alcohol within three hours of going to bed.

Turning the Bedroom Into a Sleep-Inducing Environment

Designing your bedroom environment to establish the conditions you need for sleep can significantly improve your sleep quality. Your room should be quiet and dark. You can use earplugs to lower the volume of outside noise, and wear an eye mask to block light.

To ensure your brain associates your bed to sleep instead of wakefulness, it is better to keep televisions, work material, and digital devices out of the room. You should also make sure your mattress and pillows are comfortable.

Your room’s temperature can also affect your sleep quality. If it is too hot or too cold, it may interfere with your natural body temperature and result in restless sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, a temperature between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit (about 16 to 19 degrees Celsius) provides the best sleep conditions.

Keeping a Consistent Sleep Schedule

Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day regulates the body’s internal clock and helps you fall and stay asleep. You can eventually expect to drift off at a certain time night after night. Try to stick as closely as possible to your schedule on your days off.

Exercising Early

Working out during the day can help you fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly at night. Physical activity regulates circadian rhythm and reduces symptoms of insomnia. Make sure to work out early in the day, as exercising too late may cause problems falling asleep for some people. 

Benefits Worth Considering

While getting an optimal sleep time might not always be possible in today’s fast-paced life, demonstrated benefits of adequate rest should not be overlooked. With its positive effects on mental and physical health, sufficient sleep can help increase productivity, and should be considered as necessary to professional success.