Conclusive sleep study proves elusive to researchers

I t goes without saying that we are all very well-aware of the importance of sleep. Just like with nutrition and exercise, managing sleep is vital in sustaining both your physical and mental well-being as well as in allowing you to function at peak capacity for the day ahead. While the numbers change depending on the source, the National Institute of Health recommends that teenagers should get around nine to 10 hours of sleep every day while adults should get around seven to nine hours of sleep (NIH, “How Much Sleep Is Enough?,” 02.22.2012).

However, various nationwide surveys show that getting that much sleep is only a dream for many people: A 2013 Gallup poll found that 40 percent of Americans usually get six or less hours of sleep, while 14 percent of Americans answered that they get five or less hours of sleep on average (Gallup, “In U.S., 40% Get Less Than Recommended Amount of Sleep,” 12.19.2013). These numbers are even worse for college students. A survey by the University of Alabama found that 60 percent of college students fail to get a healthy amount of sleep throughout the school year (The Huffington Post, “The College Sleep Stigma,” 12.22.2015).

Personally, I count myself among the sleep-deprived 60 percent, but I consider it a necessary evil. With so much work to do and so many extracurricular activities to juggle, how else am I going to get everything done?

24 hours in a day is not a lot of time for a busy college student, and every hour spent in bed seems like an hour wasted. It’s not ideal, but I’m sure that a considerable number of my peers are in the same stressful dilemma.

But this begs the question: What exactly are the consequences of getting less than the recommended amount of sleep on a daily basis? Keep in mind that I’m not referring to complete sleep deprivation–it’s obvious that pulling consecutive all-nighters will ruin your health in one way or another.

Instead, the focus is placed upon sleep restriction, which refers to getting some sleep but not the recommended amount every day. In other words, is it possible to stay relatively healthy even with, say, five hours of sleep every day instead of seven? Does the body ever fully adjust or are there long-lasting effects that will haunt you several years down the road?

If I’m going to sleep late every evening, I would like to know the scope of the damage. In general, not getting enough sleep forces your entire body to perform at a less-than-optimal rate. Insufficient sleep can put your body at greater risk of illness due to a less effective immune system and increase mental health issues such as depression and anxiety (University of Georgia, “Sleep Rocks!…Get More of It!”).

However, your brain is hit the hardest, since lack of sleep puts you in a state of drowsiness that greatly impairs your hippocampus and hinders your ability to concentrate and learn new things (Independent, “How a Lack of Sleep Affects Your Brain, From Your Personality to How You Learn,” 10.17.2016). Not only do both your short-term and long-term memory suffer, but you’re also more prone to making risky decisions.

Harvard Medical School found that insufficient sleep may also be linked to obesity since lack of sleep increases the production of an appetite stimulant called ghrelin, and decreases the production of a hormone called leptin, which tells your brain that you are full (Healthline, “The Effects of Sleep Deprivation on the Body,” 08.19.2014).

But all these studies use the term “sleep deprivation” instead of “sleep restriction.” Is there any reliable information about the effects of not getting enough sleep? The findings are…conflicting to say the least.

Most of the research studies I found lean toward the conclusion that getting five to six hours of sleep is still detrimental to your health. In one study, the participants cut their sleeping time to six hours a night and were tested the next day. While many participants claimed that they felt no noticeably ill effects, the researchers found that these six-hour sleepers performed as badly on various cognitive tests as those who went two full nights without any sleep (TIME, “How to Train Yourself to Need Less Sleep,” 01.20.2017).

Other sources treated the issue with grave seriousness. One study led by Dr. Jang-Young Kim of Yonsei University in South Korea determined that people who get less than six hours of sleep a night may inadvertently increase their risk of diabetes, heart disease and stroke (Huffington Post, “The Scary Truth About Getting Fewer Than 6 Hours of Sleep Each Night,” 11.13.2015).

While that may sound alarming, Dr. Kim states that the results of his study should be taken with a grain of salt since it didn’t take the quality of sleep into account and relied heavily on the participants to accurately recall and report their sleep habits, medical conditions and lifestyle behaviors.

On the other hand, a few sources went the other direction: They concluded that while the initial effects of insufficient sleep may cause problems, it doesn’t take long before the body adjusts. For instance, Dr. Jim Horne, a sleep neuroscientist at Loughborough University in England, argues that the number of hours of sleep that each person needs varies from person to person and that almost everyone can cut the amount of sleep they need down to six hours a night as long as they do it gradually (TIME).

“I’m not advocating people to get less sleep, but I’m advocating that people should not worry so much about not getting enough sleep. Especially if you’re not sleepy in the day and you’re having a fulfilling wakefulness, then you are getting enough sleep irrespective of how much you’re getting,” he said. However, even Horne says many people will start to struggle once they go below six hours.

Most interestingly, a very rare handful of people are genetically predisposed to sleeping for less than five hours. In 2009, professor of neurology Ying-Hui Fu at the University of California, San Francisco, came across a mother and her daughter who felt fine even when they went to bed at midnight and woke up at 4 a.m. Upon further inspection, Fu found that the mother and daughter were indeed perfectly healthy and well-rested. A quick genetic test led Fu to pinpoint the cause of this odd phenomenon to a mutation in a gene called Dec2, which was found in the mother and daughter, but not in the normally-sleeping members of their family (Scientific American, “Rare Genetic Mutation Lets Some People Function With Less Sleep,” 08.13.2009).

Studies with mice confirmed that the Dec2 gene influenced the body’s circadian rhythm. Unfortunately, Fu speculates that fewer than 1 percent of short-sleepers actually possess this mutation, so it’s extremely unlikely than any of us have it as well.

Ultimately, the only reliable conclusion we can make is that sleep remains a mystery to scientists even today. We might have elaborate plans on how to maximize the efficiency of our diet and exercise, but the goal of mastering sleep is as elusive as ever.

But chances are that getting less than six hours of sleep every day isn’t doing you any favors in the long run. For busy college students like myself, we just have to hope that staying up late to finish an important history paper or, say, a Miscellany News article doesn’t cause any lasting health issues.

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