Alarming News

February 29, 2008

They do when they’re on vacation

Reuters: Americans don’t sleep enough

Posted by Karol at 09:46 AM |
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Speak for yourself Karol — I usually go to film festivals for vacation, and then I don’t sleep at all.
But seriously, as someone who is very aggressive in terms of sleep deprivation, I have looked closely into these issues and read several books dedicated entirely to sleep studies to see what the consequences are.
The primary consequence is that sleep deprivation makes one slightly less alert, which makes the operation of heavy machinery — for most people that only applies to a car — slightly more dangerous, a valid concern. Luckily, we live in NYC, so this issue is moot for most of us.
Another interesting issue is the impact it has on our immune systems. Sleep studies that have kept mice awake for 20+ straight days ended up killing the mice. Interestingly, what the mice ended up dying from was the common cold. But this is not a rule, as individual humans have been documented staying awake for weeks at a time with the only real impact being possible minor hallucinations about seeing big bugs and the like. And of course these are very extreme cases. For the average sleep deprived person, if you sleep 6 or less hours a night, you probably are more likely to get a cold from time to time, but otherwise a dampened immune system is probably not a real issue unless you happen by an Ebola-laden cave.
The bulk of the other issues raised rely on the argument of correlation. E.g., people who sleep less are correlated with people who are overweight, or are more likely to die of heart disease. But correlation does not imply causation, it is an obvious logical fallacy.
For example, sleeping with one’s shoes on is strongly correlated with waking up with a headache. Therefore, sleeping with one’s shoes on causes headaches.
That this correlation argument is not strong is especially true when we can logically anticipate alternative explanations. In this case, we know from experience that people who sleep less are also correlated with more demanding jobs or personal lives, which is correlated with more stress and the diet you would expect of someone who is eating only what is immediately available when time and/or money allows. So needless to say, correlation alone is not credible to suggest that it is somehow conclusive (or even slightly persuasive) that lack of sleep is a significant factor in whether people gain or lose weight or have or don’t have heart attacks. Rather, they are just as likely equal symptoms of a lifestyle that causes those things.
From all this I conclude there is no evidence to suggest we have any reason to believe sleep deprivation has any lasting consequences for someone who doesn’t operate heavy machinery other than that you are more likely to get two colds this year instead of one. But in exchange, you get another 912 hours a year of life if you sleep 6.5 when sleep experts advise you to get 9. I’d rather have the hours myself.
Furthermore, the books and articles I have read on this suggest they are approached with a strong bias against sleep deprivation. In other words, the people attracted to this field begin with a dislike and disapproval of it, and are surprisingly not careful in the arguments they put together, like the silly correlation argument above.
In my opinion, these writers clearly don’t understand how sleep deprivation works for people who actually practice it. For example, in “Sleep Thieves”, author Stanley Coren argues that people really should get 9.5 to 10 hours of sleep a day. A significant chunk of the book is dedicated to a sleep deprivation experiment he conducted on himself. We get blow-by-blow accounts of his efforts to systematically reduce the amount of sleep he allowed himself, which (at levels well below what many bankers and lawyers are accustomed to) was increasingly difficult for him to maintain and increasingly had his life is disarray. So, he abandoned the experiment. If I remember right, his conclusion was that although you’re awake more, the quality of your awake time is degraded. I think this is true to a marginal extent, but I think he completely fails to understand how many people have accustomed themselves to it.
I would posit that anyone who actually lives on very little sleep knows that Coren’s experiment is flawed. Getting little sleep is basically something that take practice, and in my experience needs to be driven by an intense desire to stay awake for something else. I don’t think I would be able to stay awake long solely for the sake of staying awake, you have to be driven, whether it’s to finish the book you’re riveted by or whatever else. We’ve all had the experience of being exhausted, virtually unable to keep our eyes open, and then something happens that scares us or gets our attention — the late night email from a client that you screwed up, for example. Suddenly, you’re wide awake. Similarly, when you’re excited to be accomplishing or experiencing something, you look at your watch and realize it’s much later than you thought, which is odd because you don’t feel tired even though you know you should be. It seems to me that learning to focus on things/activities that keep you motivated are the key factors to sleep deprivation, and ultimately that’s something that you have to practice and learn. But once you do learn it, it is a very live-able and productive lifestyle.
In any case, I could go on for hours, but in short, nothing I’ve read has made me nervous about the sleep habits I do have, which average about 4.5 to 5.5 hours a night during the week, and a wider ranger on weekends that probably averages about to about 6.5, maybe 7 hours, while periodically just skipping a night of sleep. Maybe there’s an argument to be had out there that this should make me scared for my health, but I haven’t heard a credible one yet.

Posted by: charlie at February 29, 2008 at 7:50 pm

Charlie wrote;
“In any case, I could go on for hours…”

Ha, ha, ha, I think you already have !
You may be one of those unique people who can function on little sleep, but generally speaking, sleep is very important to one’s health. It especially affects your body’s metabolism.

Posted by: BadBoyInASuit at March 2, 2008 at 7:48 pm
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