• Robb G. Best

Save a Life: Take a Nap

Are you sleep-deprived? If you’re a working adult in America, I can probably answer the question for you: yes. Or at least, statistically, you have an 80% chance, according to a January 11 New York Times piece by Maria Konnikova.

On the fence about whether or not you qualify? Well, do you constantly feel tired during the day, or do you often find yourself falling asleep within five minutes of lying down? Chances are you’re not an efficient sleeper; you’re just not sleeping enough.

That’s not just murder on your coffee budget, it’s bad news if you’re planning on learning anything. According to a 2011 UC Berkeley study, sleep is an essential part of holding onto memories. That's when bursts of brain waves called “sleep spindles” network up to shift fact-based info from the hippocampus, which has limited storage, to the more long-term storage of the prefrontal cortex. The more spindles, the more learning is enabled.

Unfortunately, these spindles are much more active during the later, non-REM portion of slumber, so if you’re sleeping 6 hours or less, it’s harder to form long-term memories.

It’s also bad news if you’re planning on not crashing your car. When you put sleep-deprived people in a driving simulator or give them a hand-eye coordination test, they tend to perform the same or worse as drunk people. (And if you're considering swigging down a reasonable-seeming bottle of beer before a drive, keep in mind sleep deprivation magnifies the effect of alcohol.)

Getting 6 to 7 hours of shut-eye a night? You are twice as likely to be in a car accident than someone averaging 8 hours or more. If you’re more of an insomniac, and you can only manage 5 hours or less, that accident is now four to five times more likely for you than it is for your friend the eight-hours-a-night-sleeper.

It’s a widespread problem, as Konnikova explains. The average American today sleeps 2 hours less per night than their counterpart from 100 years ago. Between 50 and 70 million Americans are suffering from one chronic sleep disorder or another.

We are a nation of night owls, and a nation of drivers. The results are clear, and a little terrifying. Letting sleep-deprived people behind the wheel leads to at least 100,000 car crashes each year, killing an esimated 1550 people. However, since self-reporting is inherently flawed and many, many people don’t even know when they’re too tired to function, most experts suspect the real figure is much higher.

The damage isn’t just happening on the highway: a 2004 study at Harvard Medical School found that hospitals could reduce their medical errors by up to 36 percent just by capping out doctor work shifts at 16 hours a day, and 80 hours per week. Factor in commuting, showering, and the necessary time to wind down from a shift, and this still doesn’t even leave the 7 to 9 hours of sleep recommended by medical science for peak mental performance. It’s just enough rest not to stagger around like a zombie, accidentally adding salt to your coffee—or worse.

For those of you looking to minimize the casualties in your life, consider these tips for better sleep from the National Sleep Foundation.

  • Exercise can lead to better sleep (but remember to exercise at least three hours before bed; physical activity raises your heart rate and your body temperature, the last thing you need when you’re trying to wind down.”

  • Before bed, avoid anything that stimulates the body: caffeine, nicotine, and spicy or heavy meals

  • Develop a relaxing pre-bed routine that doesn’t involve screens (light can be disruptive)

  • Maintain a relatively consistent bedtime and wake-up time. Use as much natural light in the morning as possible, and in the evening, signal to your body that it’s time to sleep with a dark, quiet, slightly colder room.

And if you’re really struggling to keep your eyes open on the highway, pull over and let yourself snooze for a while. The moment the sounds of the freeway start to feel soothing, you know it’s time to give in and get some sleep.


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