Lack of Sleep

Everyone seems to agree that sleep is essential - but why?  Why does the body need sleep to survive?  And not just sleep in general, but sufficient sleep? 

Sufficient sleep seems to be a necessity to be mentally alert and to feel physically energetic.  Sleep restores the proper levels of neurotransmitters in the brain and plays a large role in a person's emotional well-being.

The Anatomy of Sleep

Numerous research studies show that adults need around eight hours of sleep in any 24-hour period.  However, most people do not come close to getting enough sleep.  One recent study found that 63 percent of American adults were getting less than the required eight hours of sleep.  Many of the people in the study were averaging seven hours of sleep per night, but 31 percent regularly fell far short of the eight-hour goal.

It is obvious there are individual differences when it comes to getting "enough" sleep per night.  The best indicator is probably how an individual feels when they are awake:  if they feel reasonably energetic and refreshed, they are likely getting enough sleep to function.

Variations in Sleep

Studies have shown that the people who thrive on less sleep (called "short sleepers") spend a larger amount of their sleep time in REM and stage four sleep, which are thought to be the restorative stages of sleep.  "Long sleepers" typically require nine or more hours of sleep and spend a greater amount of their sleep time in stage two, which is a much lighter stage of sleep. 

It is generally accepted that women have a tendency to sleep more than men, although there is no clear reason for this gender difference in sleep patterns.

Not only do people differ in the amount of sleep their bodies require, they also differ in when they normally want to sleep.  For instance, some people are very energetic early in the day.  They rise early in the morning, no matter what time they went to bed the night before.  Other people are known as "night owls," feeling their best during the late evening hours.  Most people become sleepy at some time after darkness falls, specifically between midnight and dawn.

Sleep patterns do seem to have a genetic basis, but other factors can influence one's need to sleep.  For example, if an individual is sick, they probably need more rest to enable their immune system to properly function. 

While regular exercise tends to reduce the amount of sleep one needs, very rigorous or unaccustomed exercise can increase the need for sleep.  Exercising too close to bedtime can also interfere with a good night's sleep.

Sleep Needs Change Over a Lifespan

Infants and children sleep more deeply and longer than adults.  Some infants sleep as much as eighteen hours per day. 

As a person ages, their sleep patterns become lighter and are more easily disrupted.  People find they slept more when they were younger and elderly people often seem to have a decreased need for sleep.  For those who find they need more sleep as they age, the quality of their sleep may be slipping.  Quality of sleep is as important, if not more so, than the number of hours a person spends sleeping.

Over the past century or so, the average amount of time one spends sleeping has been reduced by approximately 20 percent. 

The result?

The world seems to have become filled with nations of sleep-deprived people.  Although the way of life of most people has changed dramatically in the past century, the human body still needs sufficient amounts of sleep.

Without adequate rest, the body cannot recover fully from the day-to-day stresses placed upon it, and the immune system cannot defend itself against diseases.

Chronic insomnia has been shown to result in more illnesses and a much slower recovery time from them. 

Warnings Signs of Insomnia

Here are a few conditions that can cause insomnia and some of their warning signs:

  • Heart Disease - Most people do not see the connection between poor sleep and heart disease.  But snoring can be a red flag for this condition.

  • Sleep Apnea - Another disorder characterized by snoring, sleep apnea can also be accompanied by periods of thrashing or choking silences.  This type of sleep disorder results in daytime drowsiness.  The word "apnea" means "a lapse in breathing."  People who suffer from this condition can sometimes stop breathing for up to one full minute at a time.  Breathing that is interrupted keeps oxygen from entering the blood, straining the heart, elevating blood pressure and increasing the risk for heart failure and heart attack. Sleep apnea affects more men than women, and strikes about 20 percent of men over the age of 65. 

  • Obesity - Risk factors for sleep apnea include being overweight and having a small jaw, large tonsils or a deviated nasal septum.  One of the most effective treatments for this condition is weight loss. 


A study conducted over nine years by the California Department of Health concluded that adults who slept six hours a night or less had significantly higher death rates from various causes than those who slept seven hours or more. 

Aside from the higher death rates, those people whose jobs demand shift work (such as physicians, police, pilots, bus drivers, etc.) were five times more likely to experience mental health problems than people who worked a "normal" day shift.  Those who must work evening shifts should try to sleep at least eight hours per night.



  1. Lack, L. et al.(2003). Insomnia : how to sleep easy. Double Bay, N.S.W. : Media 21 Publishing.
  2. Servan-Schreiber, D. (2006). The Duke encyclopedia of new medicine : conventional and alternative medicine for all ages. London : Rodale.
  3. Vukovic, L. (2005). Overcoming sleep disorders naturally. Laguna Beach, CA : Basic Health.
  4. Wilfred, P. (2010). Sleepmanual : how to achieve the perfect night's sleep. London : New Holland.

Posted in Lack of Sleep

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