The High Cost of Low Quality Sleep

How much sleep do you get? Despite being asked this a lot, most people give a pretty vague answer. A lack of a solid sleep schedule means that most of us aren’t really tracking the length of our sleep. Sure, some of us have a set bed time, but how often do we habitually stick to this?


All sorts of things keep us up past the bedtime we set for ourselves: the kids; stress at work; large meals late at night; working in a shift-based role; social events; too much alcohol; and that Netflix show everyone at work is binging. It’s easy to lose track of time, particularly in locations with a partial or full-lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

How much sleep do I need?


According to the United States National Healthy Sleep Awareness Project, the recommended amount of nightly sleep that adults need for optimal health and alertness is at least 7 hours. Doesn’t seem like much until you realise this is around 30% of your day, and this is evident in the US where 3 in 10 adults sleep for 6 hours or less during a 24-hour cycle.


You may feel like you can function fully on less than 7 hours, still meeting your deadlines and managing your home life, and you’ve probably heard toxic phrases about how depriving yourself from sleep somehow equates to or is a marker of success.


You know the ones, you’ve probably seen them across social media, they go a something like this: “sleep when you’re dead”; “let them sleep while you grind”; or “if you woke up broke then you had no business going to sleep”.


Pressure of this nature does more harm than good. There’s literally zero scientific correlation between sleep deprivation and success, in fact, literally the opposite has been found in legitimate studies.


Despite this, many of us choose to continue down the road of low-quality sleep, using melatonin suppressants like coffee or just telling ourselves to power-through.


Impact of sleep deprivation on my health

So apart from jeopardising your own success, what’s the big deal?


Unfortunately, sleep deprivation has been connected to an expansive range of medical issues. Sleeping for 6 hours or less each night increases your risk of obesity by 21%, a stroke by 22%, type 2 diabetes by 25%, and coronary heart disease by 35%.


Of course, other biological and hereditary factors do play a role, but it’s evidently clear that sleep should be considered the third pillar of health along with a balanced diet and regular exercise to complete the trifecta.


Am I sleep deprived? What are the warning signs?


As the third pillar of health, sleep deprivation can manifest itself in a variety of ways. Here are 5 of the strongest signs that you’re not getting enough sleep:


1. You start to doze off when you are driving.


This seems like an obvious one, but approximately 1 out of every 25 adults in the United States reported that they had fallen asleep while driving in the past 30 days. Interestingly, individuals in the same report who snored or slept 6 hours or less per day were more likely to fall asleep while driving. Feeling tired at the wheel of a car can make drivers less attentive, slow their reaction time, and affect their ability to make decisions.


2. You are forgetful or make mistakes easily.


We all make mistakes sometimes. It can often be innocuous and the result of being distracted or uniformed but regular mistakes and forgetfulness can be linked to sleep deprivation.


Poor quality sleep in adults causes memories to stay stuck in part of the brain called the hippocampus and not reach the prefrontal cortex, where our long-term memories are. This results in forgetfulness and difficulty remembering names.


According to researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, poor sleep plays a significant role in memory loss and the onset of brain deterioration.

3. You feel fatigued or lack energy.

This one should be obvious as well, but despite how lethargic and exhausted we feel, we tend play it down or mask the symptoms with coffee and “powering through”. Sleep deprivation leaves your brain exhausted, so it can’t perform as well as it should.


The impact of insomnia and low quality sleep on your central nervous system may also cause you to find it more difficult to concentrate or learn new tasks or skills. The signals your body sends may also be delayed, thus decreasing your coordination and increasing your risk for accidents.

4. You are irritable, grouchy, or lose your temper easily.


Everyone has those days when they’ve woken up “on the wrong side of the bed”. We all have off days and there is nothing wrong with that. If you find yourself having more frequent low days with irritability, grouchiness, and a bad mood, then a lack of sleep may have something to do with it.


Neuroscientist Dr. Penelope A. Lewis explains that your basic perceptions of the world are subtly changed when you're overtired. People are worse at guessing what smells are, and less likely to notice sour tastes. There are also subtle problems with hearing and vision.

5. You rely on caffeine to get through the day.

Can’t function without that strong coffee in the morning? It may be masking a deeper issue. Caffeine is one of the most widely consumed stimulants in the world, with 90% of American adults consuming caffeine-infused beverages almost daily. Though there is substantial evidence that caffeine can enhance performance, an over reliance can cause problems.


Caffeine’s most recognisable effect, and the one we all want, is usually an increase in alertness and wakefulness. As mentioned, caffeine suppresses melatonin (the sleep hormone) which leads to a disruption of your sleep-wake cycle. As surprising as this may sound, some studies have found caffeine to have an even stronger influence on melatonin suppression than bright light, one of the key factors in managing our circadian rhythms.


What can I do?


A set bedtime routine and sleep schedule will pay dividends in the future. Typically it takes around 2 weeks to adjust to a new sleeping routine, which depends from person to person and can take longer if you’re not the archetypal ‘morning person’.


It can often be difficult to identify the signs of sleep deprivation unless we are seeking them out, however obvious they may seem. Why not try our sleep quality quiz to check your score and see what you can do to improve the quality of your sleep now.

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