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Why are we so sleep deprived?

Last updated 5 years ago

Have you ever seen the popular reality show "Deadliest Catch" on the Discovery Channel?  It’s about Alaskan king crab fishermen up in the Bering Sea, and what they risk to get a share of the profits.  Picture yourself on a fishing boat (try not to get seasick). You’ve got a 24-hour shift in front of you (no naps!)… as well as 40-foot waves thumping against the boat and sloshing you around constantly, 80-mile-per-hour winds whipping against every inch of you, and oh yes, subfreezing weather. You hope you can at least feel something in your hands so you can handle the huge crab pots that are banging against the deck, it is crazy to think about. Many of these fishermen come from families that have been in this business their whole lives— To them, crab fishing is not a job, it’s a life. This isn’t the only profession where sleep deprivation is considered a badge of honor. There are many other people out there who brave sleepless nights and odd working hours, like medical residents and surgeons, college or graduate students, corporate attorneys,  air traffic controllers, truck drivers, stock-brokers, loggers, farmers, start-up entrepreneurs… just about any workaholic who can’t fathom sleeping a full night’s sleep when there’s work to be done.  Just thinking about it, I would really like to have a surgeon who has had a full night’s sleep to be honest, wouldn’t you?

Is it “brave” to avoid sleep for work? No. But unfortunately it is something that our culture demands from these poor souls.  The idea that, “When I was learning this is how we did it so it is fine for the next generation,” is more than rampant in many jobs.  Please don’t misunderstand, I know what it is like to burn the midnight oil to get a task, or project, done, but it doesn’t mean that that is what has to be done every time a deadline is looming.

DaVinci used to sleep in shifts of 15 minutes to 4 hours of work, repeat, etc… He said it allowed him to find inspiration.  There are plenty of stories about famous short sleepers to go around. Among those who claim (or claimed, as some are no longer with us) that they do perfectly well on four hours of sleep are Jay Leno, Madonna, Michelangelo, Napolean Bonaparte, Florence Nightingale, and Thomas Edison (whose invention—the light bulb—forever changed all of our sleep habits). Winston Churchill got by on six hours.   If you’re a short sleeper, which is technically defined as someone who gets fewer than 6 hours a night, are you living well off that brief sleep? Are you catching more Zs during the day in the form of a nap? (Which, by the way, is how some of the aforementioned geniuses got by. Churchill took a complete 1.5- to 2-hour nap in the afternoon—getting completely undressed and into bed.)

Granted, some people actually can do well with fewer than four hours of sleep, and those people are probably genetic anomalies—people programmed to avoid all the risks related to insufficient sleep. For them, four to six hours is sufficient.   But that, unfortunately, is not the case for the vast majority of the rest of us. Attempting to get between 6-8 hours of sleep per night in a bed that is comfortable, in a room that is dark, and under the covers, is still the best recipe for sleep and avoiding sleep deprivation.

If you think you could use more sleep time, you’re probably right. And science continues to reveal what sleep deprivation can do to us (other than make us tired and cranky). The National Sleep Foundation recently released an alert pointing to new evidence: people who average fewer than six hours a night could develop many different illnesses, including diabetes.


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