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A Few Hours Sleep Versus None - Which Is Worse?

Published : Friday May 27, 2016 | Posted in : General Health

We're all aware that getting enough sleep is vital for health. Past and recent studies support arguments on both sides, but most agree that a lack of sleep leads to cognitive impairment. The question is how much sleep leads to cognitive impairment? Is only getting a few hours sleep a night just as bad as getting none at all?

A New Sleep Study

The journal Sleep has published a new study on sleep deprivation with surprising results.

The study followed 48 participants in a lab-based scenario and compared them over a two week period. Some slept for only six hours a night whilst others stayed awake for two days. Participants were questioned every two hours on their levels of tiredness and their cognitive performance was tested.

The results showed that those with six hours sleep did well in the tests until they reached day ten. At that point their cognitive performance was as bad as those who were getting no sleep. An interesting aspect of the six hour sleep participant's behaviour was that they didn't indicate they were sleepy at day ten, although their declining cognitive performance proved otherwise.

Participants in the no sleep group had no problems indicating they were sleepy. Subjects that only got four hours performed worse and those who got eight hours unsurprisingly performed the best.

Researchers suggest this may indicate people are in denial about their tiredness levels, or simply become used to feeling tired as their brains accommodate the feeling. The study indicates people will push through tiredness rather than getting more sleep, without realising they are doing so.

How Much Sleep Should We Get

Opinion is divided, but the Sleep Foundation recommends adults should aim to get between 7-9 hours a day, however the Behavioural Risk Factor Surveillance System survey showed more than 35% of Americans sleep less than seven hours a day. Another sleep study published in the journal Epidemiology showed that people overestimate how much sleep they've had by 0.8%.


Why We Need Sleep

Sleep is just as essential as eating and drinking. All living creatures sleep. The Sleep Foundation say there are two reasons why this happens.

  • To consolidate and solidify memories. The amount of information our brains take in each day is logged and recorded while we sleep and transferred into the long-term memory. Researchers have found that after sleep we retain information and perform memory tasks more clearly than on little to no sleep.
  • To rejuvenate and grow muscles, repair damage and synthesise hormones.

In other words sleep is an essential aspect of our physical and mental health. Without it our bodies cannot grow or repair properly and our memory and mental alertness is affected. This is supported by the recent study into six hours sleep versus none.

Medical reasons for tiredness

Those who get the recommended amount of sleep but still feel tired should book a check-up. There are medical reasons for tiredness such as:

  • Celiac disease
  • Anaemia
  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
  • Sleep apnoea
  • Diabetes
  • Underactive thyroid
  • Depression
  • Glandular fever
  • Restless legs
  • Anxiety

How To Get To Sleep

Although we spend up to a third of our lives asleep some people find it difficult to switch off at night or stay asleep once they've drifted off.

Those who find it difficult to sleep can help themselves by:

  • Having a regular bedtime so a natural wake / sleep cycle is established.
  • Avoiding electronic screens for half an hour before sleeping. This is because artificial light stimulates the brain. Parents should remove electronics devices from their child's bedroom overnight. Children need more sleep than adults because they're growing and acquiring language at a fast pace. It's thought one year olds need 11-14 hours and school age children need 8-10 hours a night.
  • Cut back on alcohol. Alcohol makes people sleep but it prevents quality sleep. A disturbed night is often experienced after alcohol.
  • Exercising. Obesity has a direct link to sleep apnoea. A healthy body leads to a more settled night.
  • Managing stress levels. Anxious individuals find it hard to fall asleep and to stay asleep during the night.
  • If it's safe to do so leave the window slightly ajar to encourage fresh air.
  • Aromatherapy can support sleepers with difficulties. Many scents encourage relaxation and sleep such as lavender.
  • A warm bath can relax tense muscles and reduce stress. As the body cools it naturally feels sleepier.

Everyone needs sleep. People who push through tiredness may be putting themselves and others at risk. Study participants who only got six hours sleep a night were unaware or unwilling to admit tiredness despite their declining cognitive performance. If the Behavioural Risk Factor Surveillance System results are correct a third of people sleep less than seven hours a night. This could lead to accidents and injuries brought about by slow reaction times, driving for example or operating machinery. It makes a cumulative few hours sleep just as bad as no sleep.

All living creatures need sleep to function well. If like the Sleep Foundation suggests you aim for 7-9 hours a night on a consistent basis you'll improve your mental capacity, bodily health and quality of life. In a world where we're all searching for better health surely sleeping enough should be a top priority?

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