Are you getting enough sleep? Surveys conducted in the U.S. suggest not. And how does sleep deprivation affect you? “Feeling tired” is the obvious answer. But the list of negative effects (as summarized this week in Jane Brody’s health column) goes well beyond fatigue:
According to sleep specialists… a number of bodily systems are negatively affected by inadequate sleep: the heart, lungs and kidneys; appetite, metabolism and weight control; immune function and disease resistance; sensitivity to pain; reaction time; mood; and brain function.
Some of the most insidious effects of too little sleep involve mental processes like learning, memory, judgment and problem-solving. During sleep, new learning and memory pathways become encoded in the brain, and adequate sleep is necessary for those pathways to work optimally. People who are well rested are better able to learn a task and more likely to remember what they learned. The cognitive decline that so often accompanies aging may in part result from chronically poor sleep.
With insufficient sleep, thinking slows, it is harder to focus and pay attention, and people are more likely to make poor decisions and take undue risks. As you might guess, these effects can be disastrous when operating a motor vehicle or dangerous machine.
The effects of sleep deprivation may be especially critical for athletes and others pursuing peak performance. (I’m picturing a sleep-deprived NASCAR driver or downhill skier.)
The good news is that we can change our sleep habits. And we should. Getting adequate sleep helps us with
a) being able to focus and make the right decisions in a pressure situation.
b) recovery from intense training. (“Eat, sleep, swim,” Michael Phelps told NBC when asked about his preparations for last summer’s Olympic Games.)
c) managing pain (physical and emotional) more effectively.
So, as renowned sleep researcher Jim Maas advises, we need to quit treating sleep as a luxury and instead as a necessity.
Dr. Maas, retired professor of psychology at Cornell, has recently published Sleep to Win: Secrets to Unlocking Your Athletic Excellence. As Maas writes on his blog:
Since many of my students were scholar-athletes, I started working with teams and individuals striving to become better at their sport. The results of paying attention to sleep were immediate and profound. We gave seminars to athletes from basketball to hockey, lacrosse, wrestling and field hockey and started to see vast improvement in energy level, reaction time and recovery from injury.
Researchers at The Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine have also been investigating the relationship between sleep and sport performance. When athletes are encouraged to sleep more (attempting to get 10 hours per night), they experience significant improvements in speed, reaction time, accuracy, energy, and mood. As sleep specialist Dr. Michael Breus reports, some professional sports teams are taking these data seriously, making changes in their practice schedule in an attempt to improve performance. Smart.
There are many sources of information for getting better sleep, reducing sleep deprivation, and overcoming sleep problems like insomnia. For a primer, read this basic guide by Dr. Breus.
But first and foremost, you have to prioritize sleep as a fundamental part of improvement and your pursuit of excellence.