What’s Your Sleep Number?

Yesterday morning I was up at 3.15am to catch a flight, this morning it was 4.00am.  Tomorrow I have a 6.00am flight and on Friday I can look forward to another at 5.40am. Each of these early morning departures has, or will be, preceded by a late evening meeting.  All of which led me to thinking about sleep, or lack thereof.

A sleepless night can make us cranky and moody. So much so that sleep deprivation is sometimes used as a form of torture. So I was pleasantly surprised by new research that shows it can also bring on temporary euphoria.

Scientists at UC Berkeley and Harvard Medical School studied the brains of healthy young adults and found that their pleasure circuitry got a big boost after a missed night’s sleep. However that same neural pathway that stimulates feelings of euphoria, reward and motivation after a sleepless night may also lead to risky behavior.

When functioning correctly, the brain finds the sweet spot on the mood spectrum. But the sleep-deprived brain will swing to both extremes, neither of which is optimal for making wise decisions,” said Matthew Walker, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley and lead author of the study.

The findings, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, underscore the need for people in high-stakes professions and circumstances not to shortchange themselves on sleep.

Medical professionals, airline pilots and new parents take note.  “Based on this evidence, I’d be concerned by an emergency room doctor who’s been up for 20 hours straight making rational decisions about my health” added Walker.

So how much sleep do we need?

Most adults function best with 7 to 9 hours of sleep, although only about two-thirds of Americans regularly get it. Children fare better with 8 to 12 hours, while elderly people may need only 6 to 7.

One-third of Americans are sleep-deprived, regularly getting less than 7 hours a night, which puts them at higher risk of diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and other health problems.

And then there are “short sleepers”.  It’s estimated that about 1% to 3% of the population, function well on less than 6 hours of sleep. Such people are both night owls and early birds, and tend to be unusually energetic and outgoing.  Not only are their circadian rhythms different from most people, so are their moods and their metabolism. They also seem to have a high tolerance for physical pain and psychological setbacks.

Who are these people?  Some short sleepers say their sleep patterns go back to childhood and some see the same patterns starting in their own kids, such as giving up naps by age 2. “As adults, they gravitate to different fields, but whatever they do, they do full bore,” says Christopher Jones, a University of Utah neurologist and sleep scientist

Typically, at the end of a long, structured phone interview, they will admit that they’ve been texting and surfing the Internet and doing the crossword puzzle at the same time, all on less than six hours of sleep,” says Dr. Jones. “There is some sort of psychological and physiological energy to them that we don’t understand.”

Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Leonardo da Vinci and Margaret Thatcher were too busy to sleep much, according to historical accounts. Winston Churchill and Thomas Edison came close but they were also fond of taking naps, which may disqualify them as true short sleepers.

Nowadays, some short sleepers gravitate to fields like blogging, and social media, where their sleep habits come in handy.

We can’t argue with that.  As many Word on Health readers have noted, ours is the first mail to hit their in-box every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Have any sleep stories to share?  We’d love to hear from you.

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