Right now, one-third of the population is walking, driving or doing their job in a drunken state. Not because they’ve had too much to drink, but because they haven’t spent enough time in bed. No exaggeration—inadequate sleep has been shown to be the same as operating at a blood alcohol level of .05 percent (the legal limit is .08).
You know that feeling of “running on empty.” After a few nights of poor sleep, remembering becomes difficult, mood worsens and exercise becomes harder. Even one night of sleep deprivation can increase your stress hormone levels and reduce alertness and performance. It can also affect your liver function and increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Late nights out, working overtime and the constant lure of online media after dark are some of the reasons most people aren’t getting enough sleep. In fact, 28 percent of adults report getting six hours or less of shuteye a night, far less than the seven to nine hours recommended by the National Sleep Foundation. Research suggests that decades of shift work, insomnia and a lack of prioritizing sleep affects your risk for major health issues such as heart disease.
Poor sleep quality, including insomnia and sleep apnea, are directly related to higher blood pressure and markers of inflammation, which are risk factors for heart disease in women, according to a recent study by the American Heart Association Go Red for Women Strategically Focused Research Network. Similar associations have been shown in men, suggesting a direct link between sleep and health. Research on circadian rhythms—the biological clock that controls feeding and sleeping behavior, metabolism and hormones—suggests that wake/sleep cycles influence all important bodily processes. When these cycles are out of sync, ill health is often a result.
It’s sometimes hard to notice the immediate effects of being sleepy after only five or six hours of sleep. However, the real physiological harm is happening at the cellular level, damaging the systems you need for a long, healthy life. Tucking yourself in a little earlier each night is a simple step you can take to improve your health, performance and happiness. Make it a priority to fit in at least seven hours of sleep time every night to enjoy immediate and long-term health benefits. Your heart will thank you.
Brady Holmer is a PhD student in exercise physiology at the University of Florida. His lab focuses on cardiovascular physiology; mainly how exercise can play a role in health, disease and aging.