Research Finds Getting Less Than 7 Hours Sleep Poses Health Risks

Not getting enough sleep can have long-ranging health consequences.

Not getting enough sleep is almost a point of pride in our society. When you’re busy with your career/family/novel/Netflix binge watch, who has time to get those pesky eight hours? According to Matthew Walker, founder and director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, we need to make the time.

Walker says that we are in the midst of a “catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic,” with wide-ranging effects. Operating on short sleep—which is defined as anything less than seven hours—impairs brain and bodily functioning, and increases your risk for heart attack, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, weight gain, and stroke, compromises your immune system, and makes you emotionally irrational, less charismatic and more prone to lying. Not getting enough sleep may even mimic symptoms of ADHD. With just one night of only four or five hours of sleep, the cells that attack cancer cells drop by 70 percent. The World Health Organization has classed any form of night-time shift work as a probable carcinogen. More than 20 large-scale epidemiological studies agree: the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life.

“No aspect of our biology is left unscathed by sleep deprivation,” said Walker. “It sinks down into every possible nook and cranny. And yet no one is doing anything about it. Things have to change: in the workplace and our communities, our homes and families.”

Getting eight hours is tough, Walker agreed. With work-life boundaries becoming more porous, and commute times becoming longer, there just isn’t as much time in the day. “No one wants to give up time with their family or entertainment, so they give up sleep instead.”

But there is also some social cache to not “needing” as much sleep, Walker claimed. “We have stigmatized sleep with the label of laziness. We want to seem busy, and one way we express that is by proclaiming how little sleep we’re getting. It’s a badge of honor. . . . No one would look at an infant baby asleep, and say ‘What a lazy baby!’ We know sleeping is nonnegotiable for a baby. But that notion is quickly abandoned [as we grown up].”

What about those people who just don’t need as much sleep? “[T]hose people who claim they can survive on six hours of sleep or less, unfortunately, are deluding themselves and their health,” said Walker. He said to look for these three signs to see if you’re sleep deprived without knowing it:

  • If you were not to set an alarm clock, would you sleep past it?
  • Do you tend to sleep in during the weekends?
  • Do you feel like you need caffeine in the morning, or in the afternoon to stay awake?

If you’re answering yes, chances are more sleep is needed.

Scared yet? Here are some things you can do to help get your body ready for a good night’s sleep. First, Walker recommended eschewing the evening glass of wine or cocktail, which can interfere with REM sleep and lead to more nighttime awakenings. He also recommended stopping using screens an hour before bed. LED screens can block rising levels of melatonin and push the onset of sleep later in time. Using earplugs and a face mask can also help achieve those ideal eight hours.

Although Walker has dedicated his life to sleep, he still has many questions. Chief among them is finding out when sleep emerged. “I like to posit a ridiculous theory, which is: perhaps sleep did not evolve. Perhaps it was the thing from which wakefulness emerged,” said Walker. “If I could have some kind of medical Tardis and go back in time to look at that, well, I would sleep better at night.”

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