Why sleep packs a powerful punch

Posted on 22 July 2016

Sleep may be free, but there’s a heavy price to pay if you don’t get enough. Dr Kevin Rosman, a specialist neurologist at the Mediclinic Morningside Sleep Centre, talks us through the dangers of chronic sleep deprivation.

For an adult, what would be the ideal amount of sleep?
‘Basically, the ideal amount of sleep is the amount of sleep that makes you feel refreshed and able to function normally the following day. On average that’s about seven and a half hours for an adult,’ says Dr Rosman.

‘This varies with age, however. Teenagers need much more, and the amount gets progressively less as we age. Of course, there are normal short sleepers and normal long sleepers. Some people may function perfectly well on six hours, and not be able to sleep longer than that.

‘A general rule of thumb,’ he continues, ‘is to see if you need more than two hours of extra sleep on weekends. If that’s the case, then you’re probably getting insufficient sleep during the week.’

What are the short-term dangers of sleep deprivation?
‘Sleep affects every function in the body,’ says Dr Rosman. ‘It has to do with memory, mood, hormone regulation, bone growth, immunity, pain control, sugar control, and so on.’ Next time you have a sleepless night, make a note of how you function the next day.

‘Essentially, concentration is reduced. Memory is badly affected. Pain is worse, frequently with headaches. Muscle strength is reduced. Endurance is reduced. It becomes extremely difficult to make considered decisions. Problems become very difficult to work out,’ says Dr Rosman.

Because memory consolidation occurs during sleep, your memory will be significantly affected if you don’t get adequate sleep. ‘People become irritable, and this seriously affects social relationships, too.’

And that’s just the danger to yourself. On the road, you pose a real risk when not sleeping sufficiently. According to Arrive Alive, tired drivers are responsible for at least 1 in 5 deaths on UK roads. In Africa the problem is thought to be even more pronounced: anecdotal evidence suggests that as many as 60% of truck accidents may be due to driver tiredness.

‘It has been shown that after 19 hours without sleep, the risk of driving is the same as the risk of driving drunk,’ says Dr Rosman. ‘After 26 hours, the risk of driving is the same as driving double the legal limit of alcohol.’

What about the long-term dangers to your health?

‘Long-term sleep deprivation frequently affects the mood. It is not uncommon to see people who suffer from depression that is not responsive to medication, find that their condition is improved when their sleep is normalised,’ says Dr Rosman.

It has been shown that people with chronic sleep deprivation experience more viral infections. They also have considerably more pain, and this will not infrequently result in chronic pain syndromes, such as headaches and fibromyalgia. Syndromes such as irritable bowel and even polycystic ovarian syndrome have also been associated with chronic sleep disorders.

‘Furthermore, bone growth occurs during sleep,’ says Dr Rosman. ‘This is one of the reasons why sleep is so important in childhood. Tissue repair occurs during sleep. In the absence of sleep, not only is tissue repair slowed, but the inflammatory peptides are increased, causing more pain and tissue damage.’

And we can go on. ‘Chronic lack of sleep can cause an increase in blood sugar levels. It has also been shown to cause an increase in weight through chemical alterations caused by the lack of sleep.

‘This list is by no means exhaustive,’ explains Dr Rosman, ‘but gives an idea of the kind of problems seen on a daily basis by those of us practising sleep medicine.’

The Mediclinic Morningside Sleep Centre provides a comprehensive diagnosis and treatment service for patients with sleep and neurological disorders. Visit www.morningsidesleepcentre.com for more information.

Published in Healthy Life

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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