When Thomas Edison set out to create the light bulb, his intention was to reduce the amount of time that people spent sleeping. His idea was that if people had light to work by they could and would work longer hours. In his mind, sleep was something that was not needed and stood opposed to progress (Coren, 1996).
“Anything which tends to slow work down is a waste. We are always hearing people talk about ‘loss of sleep’ as a calamity. They better call it loss of time, vitality, and opportunity.”
Even great minds, like Edison’s, can be wrong at times. Some researchers argue that had Edison spent more time sleeping it would not have taken him more than 1000 attempts to create his light bulb. Research has shown that lack of sleep can have adverse effects on an individual’s physical health, mental health, and productivity. The information presented in this paper will address the importance of sleep in human health, safety, and productivity. First, some physical issues attributed to sleep deprivation will be discussed. Next, mental problems linked to lack of sleep with be outlined with documented cases. Lastly, examples of errors and disasters that have been tied to sleep deprivation will be presented.
There are many physical issues that are linked to sleep deprivation. Cardiovascular problems and greater risk of death have been tied to lack of sleep. The human body requires sleep to restore and repair itself. When the body does not get the rest it requires the consequences can be quite unfortunate.
Poor sleep has been shown to increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart failure, stroke, and heart attack. The human liver produces a protein called “C-reactive protein” that is used by the body to aid in response to inflammation, injury, or infection and is removed by the body when the inflammation, injury, or infection is gone or heals. This protein binds to damaged cells, as well as some bacteria, to aid in removing them from the body. This allows the body to heal.
One study showed that over a period of five days during which a subject was denied sleep, the C-reactive protein builds up in blood at a steady and significant rate. Sleeping allows the body time to process and remove these proteins. An increase of these proteins can at times lead to heart attack, stroke, or high blood pressure (Meier-Ewert , Ridker , Rifai, Regan, Price, Dinges & Mullington, 2004).
The body is able to restore itself and heal when given between six and eight hours of sleep in a 24-hour period. While a person sleeps the immune system is working to restore and revive the body. When the human body is not granted enough sleep, the immune system is not able to fully complete the task of taking care of and healing the body.
Lack of sleep can also cause the number of T-cells to decline in the human body. T-cells aid in immunity and assist other cells in their functions. Lower T-cell levels mean that the body is less able to fight off infection, subdue inflammation, or heal an injury (Mann, 2010). When the body is unable to heal itself, there is greater risk of death.
Sleep deprivation can also lead to an increase of stress, which has been linked to heart disease, obesity, depression, gastrointestinal issues, as well as mental heath issues. Allowing the body to rest and rejuvenate during sleep helps ensure that many physical issues associated with the lack of sleep can be avoided.
Another way that lack of sleep increases the chance of early death is in traffic accidents. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gives a conservative estimate that 100,000 reported crashes per year are a result of a fatigued driver (“Facts and stats” 2012).
Mental illness has also been linked to lack of sleep. Issues ranging from poor concentration, inability to focus, memory loss, the appearance of psychosis, and diagnosed mental disorders have been attributed to sleep deprivation. In the past, researchers believed that poor sleep was caused by psychiatric problems. However, recent research is showing that a lack of sleep is usually the catalyst of mental disorders.
When the human body needs to concentrate or focus when it has not had enough sleep, it produces hormones adrenaline and cortisol in an attempt to engage and wake itself up. These hormones give the body a short-term boost in energy and they affect the body in much the same way that caffeine does. Once the boost in energy is finished, the body often “crashes” and a person returns to feeling tired; unable to concentrate or focus again. These hormones, again like caffeine, often make a person feel jittery of jumpy, which may impede concentration and focus. These hormones have also been directly linked to increase stress in the human body (Hart, 1985).
Memory loss can also be a result of sleep deprivation. Memories are captured and recalled in the brain by a three-step process. The first step in creating memories is acquisition; where a person has their first experience with what will become the memory. The next is consolidation; which occurs while a person sleeps. In this step a memory becomes stable in a persons brain. Recall, the final step, is the ability to access the memory in the future. When the brain is denied the opportunity to stabilize a memory during sleep, a person is much less likely to retain the memory (Chang, 2011).
Studies have also shown that students who study regularly and get a good night sleep before exams generally do better than students who “cram” the night before. The information that the student needs is better solidified in the brain and is ready for recall when the student needs to access the information (Sifferlin, Augu).
Symptoms of psychosis have also been directly tied to sleep deprivation. In at least two documented cases, persons who went without sleep for extended periods of time showed symptoms similar to psychosis. In 1964 Randy Gardner attempted to gain entry into the Guiness Book of Work Records by staying awake for eleven days (264 hours). Gardner suffered a gamut of symptoms. Days two through five found Gardner unable to concentrate, irritable, unwilling to cooperate with others, and hallucinating. During days six through nine Gardner’s speech slowed, his irritability increased, and he began to have lapses in his memory. He often would begin sentences without finishing them and he had difficulty recalling the names of common objects. Paranoia began to set in on day ten. On day eleven, Gardner’s speech was slurred and without intonation. He seemed expressionless and had to be encouraged to talk or respond to someone talking to him (Ross, 1965).
A similar story is told of Peter Tripp, a disk jockey from New York. In an effort to raise money for the March of Dimes, Tripp stayed awake for 200 hours. He showed many of the same symptoms that Gardner did. Tripp’s experience with sleep deprivation ended with him mistaking a doctor for an undertaker. He charged out of the room with doctors following close behind. Tripp’s mind could no longer determine what was real and what was not (Ross, 1965).
With the aid of doctors, Randy Gardner was able to recover completely from his psychotic episode. He was monitored while he slept and eventually returned to normal sleep patterns and a normal state of mind. Peter Tripp, however, suffered from his self-inflicted psychotic break. For some time after his sleepless stunt he thought that he was an impostor of himself and complained of headaches and emotional instability.
Lack of sleep can also affect how people perform at their jobs. Routine and remedial tasks are often affected by a lack of sleep. Simple errors, such as spelling, grammatical, mathematical, or clerical errors are most often made due to a lack of sleep. These errors can either go unnoticed or can be corrected without significant consequence. More significant errors are also attributed to fatigue. Between 50,000 and 100,000 deaths each year are caused by preventable medical errors. Long shifts for doctors, interns, and nurses deny medical professionals sleep required for them to function a high levels. The nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, the meltdown at Chernobyl, the grounding of the Exxon Valdez, and the explosion of space shuttle Challenger have all been linked to fatigue (Harris, Horne, 2000).
“Sleep deprivation is bad for your brain when you are trying to do high-level [thinking] tasks. It may have serious consequences both on performance and on the way your brain functions.”
-J. Christian Gillin, M.D. (DeNoon, 2000)
In research and in experience it has been proven that lack of sleep can have adverse effects on an individual’s physical health, mental health, and productivity. An individuals physical health is affected by sleep deprivation by an increased risk of death, cardiovascular problems, and issues with their immune system. A person’s mental health suffers as well from a lack of sleep. Memory loss, inability to concentrate or focus, and even psychotic episodes have been traced to sleep deprivation. Randy Gardner and Peter Tripp are prime examples of what happens to the brain when it goes without sleep. Poor job performance and errors ranging from insignificant to catastrophic have been linked to a lack of sleep.
The amount of sleep needed for each individual is different. Where some people are able to function on very little sleep, others need many hours to fully restore and rejuvenate.
Coren, S. (1996). Sleep thieves : an eye-opening exploration into the mystery and science of sleep. New Yok, NY: Free Press Paperbacks.
Hart, A. (1985). Adrenaline and stress. United States: W Publishing Group.
Meier-Ewert , H., Ridker , P., Rifai, N., Regan, M., Price, N., Dinges, D., & Mullington, M. (2004, February 18). Effect of sleep loss on c-reactive protein, an inflammatory marker of cardiovascular risk.. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14975482
Mann, D. (2010, January 19). Can better sleep mean catching fewer colds?.
Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/excessive-sleepiness-10/immune-system-lack-of-sleep
Harrison Y, Horne J. 2000. The impact of sleep deprivation on decision making: A review. Retrieved from http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/matters/consequences/sleep-performance-and-public-safety
Facts and stats. (2012). Retrieved from http://drowsydriving.org/about/facts-and-stats/
Ross, J. (1965). Neurological findings after prolonged sleep deprivation. Arch Neurol, 12, 399-403. Retrieved from http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/print/article/10168/54471?pageNumber=1&printable=true
Chang, L. (2011, March 18). Sleep deprivation and memory loss. Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/guide/sleep-deprivation-effects-on-memory?page=2
DeNoon, D. (2000, February 09). Lack of sleep takes toll on brain power. Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/news/20000209/lack-of-sleep-takes-toll-on-brain-power
Sifferlin, A. (Augu). Time healthland. Retrieved from http://healthland.time.com/2012/08/21/study-or-sleep-for-better-grades-students-should-go-to-bed-early/ EFFECTS OF SLEEP DEPRIVATION1