Thirty per cent of men 30 to 44 years old say they log less than six hours of sleep at night, according to a survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US. And local studies estimate that insomnia affects 15.3 per cent of all Singaporeans, while sleep apnoea hits 15 per cent of us. The price you pay for this sleep deficit is more than just lost productivity – your health can suffer too.
Sleep raises an army of T cells (which protect your body from infection) and sends them into battle against nasty bugs. Sleep resets the appetite controls that stop you from hitting that turn signal when you pass a fast-food joint. And, of course, sleep helps you above the neck as well as below the belt.
“It stabilises your waking brain, makes you more alert and allows you to process information faster,” says David Dinges, PhD, who studies shuteye at the University of Pennsylvania. “It helps you remember things and consolidate those memories.” You won’t get that from an energy drink. It’s time to shed some light on this dark territory. We weed out the myths.
Myth: Successful, driven guys can do with just five hours a night
Sleep scientists estimate that only 10 per cent of adults are hard-wired to need appreciably less (or more) sleep than the recommended seven to eight hours. And by cheating on sleep, you’re limping through life with the cranial equivalent of a torn calf muscle. Scarier still, people who are sleep-deprived often don’t even know they’ve turned into zombies.
After dividing 48 volunteers into four sleep regimens – eight, six, four and zero hours a night (aka torture) – University of Pennsylvania researchers found that the six hours- a-night group fared as poorly on measures of alertness and memory after two weeks as the no-sleep crew did after 24 hours. But participants in the six-hour group didn’t feel very sleepy even when they were performing at their worst.
Accumulating a sleep deficit also leads to “microsleeps” while you’re awake. “Your brain becomes unstable and will go ‘offline’ for half a second,” Dinges says. The more sleep-deprived you are, the more frequent and longer the lapses.
If you didn’t sleep seven or eight hours every night this past week, go to bed this weekend at your regular weekday time but don’t set your alarm clock. Did you rise on Saturday and Sunday at the same time you would have on, say, a Tuesday? Then you may be one of those few people who can sleep less yet remain healthy. The rest of us mere mortals can begin to repay our sleep debt by dozing 10 hours a night on weekends and then sticking to seven to eight hours during the week. Your brain will use this strategy whenever you accumulate a sleep debt, says Dr Ruth Benca, PhD, medical director of the Wisconsin Sleep Center. Otherwise, you want to stay consistent with your sleeping.
Myth: A frequent need to pee in the middle of the night indicates a health problem
That first stumble to the bathroom in the dark can be chalked up to the beer you guzzled while watching the Chelsea game. The second one can spell trouble. “If you habitually take two or more bathroom trips a night, you probably have obstructive sleep apnoea,” says Dr Alex Chediak, medical director at the Miami Sleep Disorders Center.
With sleep apnoea, the soft tissue at the back of your throat blocks your upper airway during sleep, stopping your breathing for anywhere from 10 seconds to a minute or even longer. This can occur hundreds of times in a night, depriving you of restorative deep sleep and starving your vital organs of oxygen. No wonder sleep apnoea has been linked to heart disease, hypertension and mood disorders. But why does it wake you up to pee?
Because those minisuffocations result in lower circulating oxygen levels, your heart pumps harder, raising your blood pressure. As excess fluid builds up in your veins, a feedback loop triggers the release of a pressure-relieving diuretic, making you pee. An enlarged prostate and high blood sugar can also prompt middle-of-the-night loo breaks. But with those conditions, says Dr Chediak, you’ll pee more day and night.
Raising the pillow end of your bed by a few inches can help prevent that tissue from blocking your throat. Snoring could also be waking you in the middle of the night and one major cause is nasal obstruction. Wash out mucus and irritants by mixing a quarter teaspoon of table salt in two cups of warm water and flushing your nose twice a day using a medical or bulb syringe. Japanese researchers found that people with nasal obstruction were twice as likely to experience daytime fatigue as people with clear passageways. (For video instruction on the technique, visit mayoclinic.com and search “nasal irrigation”.)
If the peeing persists around the clock, schedule a prostate exam and have your blood-sugar level checked by your doctor.