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Anyone who knows we had an election problem in November knows that eating right and exercising regularly will help us live significantly longer and better. Conversely, poor diet (i.e., the stuff most people eat) and sloth (i.e., the nothing most people do) are significant predictors that our later years may be unnecessarily spent in impaired health or in a grave.
Medical science is just now learning that inadequate sleep may reduce the quality and/or quantity of our lives as surely and as much as bad diet or inadequate exercise does. Recent research repeatedly implicates long-term sleep debt as a likely factor in the U.S. epidemics of diabetes, obesity and certain cancers. Boasting about one's short sleep is becoming medically akin to bragging about eating lots of fatty foods, avoiding exercise, even driving drunk. Sleep deprivation is so prevalent that the National Institute of Mental Health suspects "very few adults in the industrialized world know the crystal-clear sensation of being completely rested", according to U.S. News & World Report.
We've discussed before how to sleep better; now it's time to discuss why we should sleep longer. And don't even ask: you do not get enough sleep. By the time we retire and start spending adequate time in bed, the declining quality of our sleep still denies us the quantity of sleep we need. Almost all those people who say they "do fine on six hours of sleep regularly" are deceiving themselves, according to emerging medical evidence.
How do you know whether you are sleep-deprived? That's easy: as a first test, you're breathing. More rigorous criteria say we don't get enough sleep if we sleep less than eight hours almost every night or get drowsy any time during the day or evening. In particular, if you can easily doze off in a dull meeting, in a warm church, in front of a 45 to zip Monday Night Football game, riding in the back seat, or in a deliberate ten-minute afternoon nap; if you need an alarm clock to wake up to go to work on a January Hump Day; if you are able to sleep late on weekend mornings; if you snore or snort while sleeping; even if you're merely past The Big Five-Oh -- it's quite likely you're sufficiently sleep-deprived to affect your performance, health, and longevity.
Most of us fit one or more of those molds. But so far we've lived just fine on 5-6-7 hours a day, haven't we?
No, we haven't. It's that simple. Hundreds of millions of people have missed test questions, made little and big mistakes at work and home, gotten sick or injured, and/or even shortened our lives just because we get insufficient sleep. Worse yet, we've violently killed hundreds of thousands of people by scrimping on sleep.
If that didn't wake you bolt upright, you're more sleep-deprived than most of us, or just skeptical. Let's dispel that skepticism with some old facts, new facts, and sleep research findings.
Sleep research isn't just about sawing logs; it's more like rocket science. It's about alpha, beta, and theta brain waves; REM sleep; extensive mental and physical performance tests; blood and brain chemistry; human physiology; and population health statistics. Sleep lab tests consistently show that most healthy people consistently wake up spontaneously after 8.25 hours of sleep once they've had many nights of unlimited sleep to erase any sleep debt. Both in sleep labs and in ancient historical records, people free to sleep long hours (by lack of electricity centuries ago, by design in modern studies) tend to sleep similar hours. Historical records loosely imply eightish hours; sleep lab subjects usually hit 8.25 hours.