I am writing this story sleep-deprived on six hours of sleep, with my cognitive functions significantly impaired. Likely, you are reading this sleep-deprived too, because multiple studies have confirmed that our adult brains need exactly eight hours of sleep and it’s pretty hard to get that regularly if you have any type of responsibility.
The drumbeat from scientific studies is this: 8 hours. 8 hours. 8 hours. Any less and you’re not functioning well, even if you fool yourself that you are.
Even seven hours of sleep, which is luxury not afforded to many in the medical or journalism worlds of overnights and shifts, will still negatively affect your brain. Losing less than an hour of sleep from the prescribed eight hours made participants in a Walter Reed study three times more likely to doze off than participants who got eight hours of sleep.
In a similar two-week study, the participants who only slept six hours were acting as if they were under total sleep deprivation after only 10 days of six-hour sleep.
The researchers measured participants’ cognitive functions after their sleep. The ones who got less than eight hours of sleep were slower to respond, couldn’t interpret words as well, and were dozing off more.
After one sleepless night, the participants in the zero-sleep group were acting like they were legally drunk.
You can’t game sleep
There’s no way to beat the sleep system. Sleep is superior. Those same researchers also found that we can’t catch up on sleep on the weekends. People who slept less than eight hours during the week did not regain their baseline levels of cognitive function after a weekend of recommended sleep.
Worse, we don’t even recognize when we are sleep-deprived. People in the six-hour sleep group thought they did great on the cognitive function tests, but they performed significantly worse than the eight-hour sleep group.
But naps do help
If you don’t get those eight hours of beauty rest, there’s still one other option to help: an afternoon siesta.
University of Pennsylvania researchers found that a one-hour nap after lunch improved 3,000 elderly seniors’ overall cognition. They could recall tasks better and solve more math problems. There’s even a power nap wheel created by sleep researchers that determines when is the best time to take a nap based on when you woke up.
It can be hard in our busy lives to make time for sleep, but study after study confirms that we need to prioritize zzz’s to be our most productive selves. And these sleep studies suggest that the reason we are so busy with never-ending tasks might be because we’re too sleep-deprived and tired to be efficient. We need to make sleep a lifestyle, not a habit.
One good night’s sleep can make us feel like superheroes, but it doesn’t mean we can pull an all-nighter the next night. A Reductress headline wryly satirized the sleep dilemma as “How Getting 8 Hours of Sleep Gave Me The Energy to Overcommit Again.”
After reading these studies, I, for one, am a changed woman. I’m going to bed at 11:30 p.m. tonight in penance after writing this.