A Wake-up Call to the Sleep Deprived

Meeting planners readily jettison sleep to make every event, conference and teambuilding exercise memorable if not magical. It comes with the job, right? A few sleepless nights seem like a small price to pay to bask in the ambient glow of a job well done.

Until the check arrives.

The underappreciated toll that fatigue exacts on our sleep-deprived world has become the cause célèbre of TED Talks lately, as the statistics from dozens of disciplines all add up to the same conclusion: our lack of sleep is killing us.

Not only does dozing while driving cause an estimated 100,000 accidents and 6,000 fatalities on U.S. highways every year, but lack of sleep can lead to (big breath) depression, premature aging, cognitive impairment, high blood pressure, low sex drive, obesity, diabetes, stroke and a variety of dangerous heart conditions. In one British study, it even doubled the risk of death from cardiovascular disease.

sleepneed2Why does lack of sleep leave our bodies so befuddled?

Dr. Allan Pack, a sleep biologist at the University of Pennsylvania, says sleep, like orgami, is all about the folds – only in sleep’s case, what we’re folding on the cellular level is protein, the stuff that makes us run.

“You’re made of protein; proteins are the essence of you. Inside certain cells, when you don’t get sleep, you don’t get protein. It’s called the unfolded protein response,” he explained to NPR’s RadioLab. “So if your proteins are not folded properly, they start accumulating inside the cell and form clumps. It’s really quite toxic to cells.”

Dr. Giulio Tononi, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says without sleep to clean out the clumps, our alert mind becomes like a cluttered hotel room in desperate need of maid service. And who hasn’t been there, right?

“Sleep is the annihilation of consciousness,” he told RadioLab. “If people didn’t sleep and didn’t have the unconsciousness of sleep, they possibly wouldn’t even realize that consciousness is a gift.”

Scary stuff. No wonder experts believe that sleep deprivation may have played a role in the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Staten Island ferry crash and the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown.

Ah, but how to get that recommended seven to nine hours of sleep each night? There’s the rub.

Neuroscientist Russell Foster of Brasenose College, Oxford, offers these tips for better sleep, at home and on the road:

  • Decrease your exposure to light at least a half hour before turning in.
  • Keep your bedroom dark and cool.
  • Turn off all electronics (cellphones, laptops, tablets); they excite the brain.
  • Don’t drink caffeine after lunch.
  • Increase light exposure as you wake up.

Bonne nuit, mes amis!

Jay MacDonald

Jay MacDonald

Jay MacDonald is an award-winning journalist, author and blogger who incorporates humor and human interest into a broad range of topics. Follow him on Twitter @omnisaurus

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