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How sleep deprivation can impair your day-to-day

This is an excerpt from Christian Paths to Health and Wellness, Second Edition, by Peter Walters and John Byl.


Find the latest research on nutrition and fitness with the new edition of
Christian Paths to Health and Wellness.

Effects of Sleep Deprivation

Peter Tripp’s experiences are a fairly accurate case study of the consequences of sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation generally occurs in stages, revealed by the symptoms characteristic of each one. The six symptoms of sleeplessness are the following:

  1. General fatigue
  2. Emotional irritability
  3. Cognitive impairment
  4. Physical impairment
  5. Psychosis
  6. Death

General Fatigue

The first symptom of sleep deprivation is a general feeling of drowsiness and a lack of energy. Peter Tripp exhibited this symptom, not surprisingly, within a day of the start of the wakeathon. Though he broadcasted his show as energetically as ever, during breaks his assistants had to constantly force him to stay awake.

According to one study, in less than a century there has been almost a 60 percent increase in the number of people who report feeling tired in the morning and sluggish throughout the day (Pasztor, 1996). Temporary fatigue does not permanently affect health, but the real danger is that it dramatically increases the chances of getting in a car accident.

  • The U.S. National Highway Safety Administration estimates that approximately 100,000 accidents, 71,000 injuries, 15,000 deaths, and $12.5 billion in monetary losses per year are directly attributable to drowsy drivers (National Sleep Foundation, 2007).
  • According to the National Transportation Safety Board, fatigue is the number one factor detrimentally affecting the ability of pilots (Pasztor, 1996).
  • Sleep-related crashes are most common in young people, who tend to stay up late, sleep too little, and drive at night. A study by the state of North Carolina found that 55 percent of such crashes involved people aged 25 or younger (National Sleep Foundation, 2007).

The good news is that fatigue is easily dealt with. One study indicated that alertness increased by approximately 25 percent with just one additional hour of sleep (Leung & Becker, 1992).

Emotional Irritability

People with sleep deprivation are more prone to depression, irritability, anger, frustration, and anxiety (Stickgold et al., 2004). Peter Tripp certainly showed this and even lost his temper with his favorite barber so badly that he brought the barber to tears. Research has also shown that good emotional memories are reinforced and bad ones dampened during certain phases of sleep, causing a general boost in mood. A 2005 National Sleep Foundation poll investigated the relationship between sleep and the emotional health of teenagers (National Sleep Foundation, 2005). The results showed that

  • 73 percent of students who reported being the most unhappy, tense, and nervous said they consistently did not get enough sleep;
  • 55 percent of the students with the best mood reported getting adequate sleep most nights, while only 20 percent of those with the worst mood reported getting adequate sleep;
  • 59 percent of students with the worst mood reported often feeling tired, compared to only 19 percent of those with the best mood; and
  • 51 percent of students with the worst mood reported having trouble falling asleep, compared to only 18 percent of those with the best mood.

Though many people do not realize it, moods and emotions have a crucial physical component. Sometimes the best remedy for a short fuse and a bad attitude is simply to get more sleep. Any parent knows how greatly sleep affects a young child’s temper, and no one grows out of the need for sleep.

Cognitive Impairment

By the third day of Peter Tripp’s wakeathon, his mental and cognitive abilities began to decline. Recall that instead of his famous fast-paced chatter, he began to speak in slow, cumbersome sentences and often seemed at a loss for words. He struggled to remember basic information and could no longer concentrate.

While this case study illustrates the consequences of extreme sleep deprivation, sleeplessness can significantly damage cognitive abilities in daily life. According to a Harvard experiment, people score significantly better on memory tests when they sleep soundly for at least 6 hours the night after they learn something. If people are deprived of sleep on the night after the information was learned, however, their memory of it will never improve, even if they sleep normally on subsequent nights (Moore-Ede, 1993).

Students do not have to choose between bed and books. Better grades come with more, not less, sleep. Researchers who compared academic records to sleep questionnaires for both high school and medical students found that those with the best grades consistently reported sleeping longer (Moore-Ede, 1993). One study even showed that people who did not sleep on the previous night scored substantially worse on cognitive performance tests than the subjects who were legally intoxicated but slept the night before (Kuo, 2001). No one would take an important exam while intoxicated, but these findings suggest that poor sleep can be even more detrimental! Quantitatively, one study has measured the difference in cognitive function following a night of sufficient sleep and then a night of insufficient sleep. The study found that after insufficient sleep, people score an average of 10 points worse on a test of cognitive function than they had previously (Miyata et al., 2010). It seems that sleep-deprived college students may not even realize the negative effect sleep loss has on mental ability. In a study of 44 college students, where half had 8 hours of sleep and half pulled an “all-nighter,” those without sleep performed statistically worse than those with a full night of sleep. The most surprising finding, however, was that when asked to estimate their cognitive performance, the students with no sleep estimated a higher performance than the students with a full night of sleep (Pilcher & Walters, 1997). The moral of this story is that “the way to get more As is to get more Zs” (Moore-Ede, 1993).

Physical Impairment

During his eight-day sleep deprivation, Peter Tripp’s only sign of physical impairment was a core temperature drop. However, during these eight days, Tripp engaged in minimal physical activity, so other impairments may have been present but were not observed. Other research shows that sleep deprivation slows reaction time (see figure 10.6; Kribbs & Dinges, 1994). Sleep deprivation also diminishes muscular strength (Reilly & Piercy, 1994), and one study found that it could decrease cardiorespiratory endurance by as much as 11 percent (Martin, 1981). It has even been suggested that heart failure may be connected to a lack of sleep in some cases (Riegel & Weaver, 2009).

Psychosis

After a few days with no sleep, Peter Tripp began to have mental delusions. He saw cobwebs in his shoes, ants running across his desk, and a rabbit in the broadcasting booth. He began to hear voices, and soon he could no longer remember where he was. He became paranoid and began to imagine that there was a conspiracy against him. During a checkup on the morning of the eighth and final day, he “realized” that the doctors were trying to bury him alive and ran screaming from the examination room, completely naked. His doctor had to tackle him to prevent him from running out of the building. Tripp’s delusions and paranoia serve as illustrations of some likely consequences of extreme sleep deprivation (Bullman & Milne, 1998; Coren, 1996).

Political, military, and religious groups have long used sleep deprivation as a means of brainwashing and torture. Sleep deprivation causes people to become emotionally unstable and lose their grip on reality. Although the thought of seeing hallucinations of space aliens or singing frogs may seem funny, the consequences can be quite serious. For obvious reasons, few experiments have been performed in which human subjects are extensively sleep deprived, so many questions about these later stages of sleep deprivation in humans remain unanswered. Case studies such as Peter Tripp’s therefore provide valuable information.

Death

Any animal will eventually die if not permitted to sleep. Rats will die after 2 to 3 weeks of total sleep deprivation or after 5 weeks of partial sleep deprivation (Rechtschaffen & Bergmann, 1995). For obvious reasons, this type of experimentation is not possible with humans. It is also very rare that a person would become sleep deprived to the point of death because severely sleep-deprived humans will begin to have 30-second intervals of “microsleep,” brief periods in which the brain does not perceive environmental stimuli and brain waves briefly adopt sleep patterns (Science News, 2011).

The consequences of extreme sleep deprivation are tragically observable in humans who have fatal familial insomnia, a rare hereditary disease that completely eliminates the ability to sleep. The disease is incurable and leads to a coma and eventually death (American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 2001).

Mercifully, Peter Tripp never became deprived of sleep enough to endanger his life, but it is clear that his record-breaking time awake did have permanent consequences. His happy-go-lucky demeanor was replaced by a negative, argumentative one, and he lost his wife, his listeners, and eventually his job. His life was permanently changed.

Most people will never have the more severe and dangerous symptoms of sleeplessness, but many will go through their lives feeling tired and cranky. Without the energy to remember birthdays or write letters or return phone calls, or the spirit to make jokes or take risks or have adventures, they will find it hard to build meaningful relationships. Instead of being a “fountain of joy,” these people become a drain. Worst of all, they may be so exhausted that they do not even care. Those who say, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” may miss out on a lot while they are
alive.


Read more from Christian Paths to Health and Wellness, Second Edition, by Peter Walters and John Byl.


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