Bad sleep is not as harmful as it seems: 6 unexpected discoveries
We all know that little sleep is bad. Matthew Walker, a scientist at the University of California at Berkeley who studies sleep and wrote the best-selling book Why We Sleep, even stated, “The less you sleep, the shorter your life.” However, some researchers believe that worries about sleep deprivation are grossly exaggerated, and that, ironically, these worries may worsen the problem. You will see that “too little” sleep is not always as disastrous as we used to think.
It’s not always a lack of sleep
The idea of the chronotype of larks (go to bed early and get up early) and owls (go to bed late and get up late) is familiar to everyone. Most children are early risers, but many become owls in adolescence. Teens may wake up late on weekends, but not during the school week. Therefore, it is not surprising that various studies have shown that children perform better when they start school later. Many sleep specialists and pediatricians support this approach. Sleep is believed to be beneficial for children. But this is not always the case. A recent study of Dutch high school students published in Scientific Reports found that owls score worse, but this is independent of sleep duration.
The findings suggest that owls perform worse on exams than larks, even if they sleep enough. And the point seems to be that exams are often held in the morning before the owls have reached their cognitive peak. If the exams are held in the afternoon, then the results of owls and larks are the same. This is especially noticeable in natural science subjects. Of course, if the school day starts later, then the exams start later – and this is better suited to the chronotype of many teenagers. However, this all means that in many cases, trying to get teens to go to bed earlier and sleep longer does not make as much difference to their school performance as it is argued.
Cause or Effect?
Anxiety, OCD, ADHD, schizophrenia, PTSD … many types of mental disorders are also associated with sleep problems. It is now recognized that mental illness and sleep deprivation exacerbate each other, forming a vicious circle. And it’s not just that lack of sleep causes symptoms of certain diseases. There is evidence that stress at an early age can lead to insomnia later on. One study found that children who grew up in families with high levels of conflict are more likely to suffer from insomnia when they grow up. This is the case even when the analysis takes into account sleep problems or depression in childhood – so it’s not just that sleep problems start in childhood and persist into adulthood.
As for depression, the link between sleep and its symptoms can be surprising …
For people experiencing depression, sleep deprivation can be an effective treatment. This has been proven in a series of studies that began nearly 50 years ago. But it has become a standard therapy relatively recently. In healthy people, if they are deprived of sleep, their mood usually deteriorates. But in people with depression, if they stay awake for at least one night, it can lead to a reverse reaction (at least temporarily). Studies in Denmark show that the effect appears quickly and affects most patients. The exact mechanism of how this treatment works is still being discussed. Perhaps this is due to the shock of the inert biological clock.
Sleep doesn’t always improve memory
There is ample evidence that sleep is important for memory. But recently, at least one study has challenged the idea that sleep always improves memory. Given the previous data, the researchers expected eyewitnesses who were given the opportunity to sleep well would be able to better identify suspects in the crime the next day. But no.
It was a big study: 2,000 participants watched a short video about a man who stole a laptop from his office. Twelve hours later, they were asked to identify him among other people. Participants who were given the opportunity to sleep during this time were not more accurate in identifying the perpetrator than others. We need to study this issue deeper to understand why this happened.
Effects can be indirect
You have undoubtedly heard that lack of sleep harms not only mental but also physical health. For example, women who get little sleep are more likely to be obese, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. But the main reason for this, apparently, is indirect: women who do not sleep well, more often choose less useful foods – high-calorie, energy-intensive. This choice is certainly associated with a lack of quality sleep, but it cannot be an inevitable result. But researchers suspect a poor diet can lead to poor sleep. “It’s possible that poor diet is negatively affecting women’s sleep quality,” says lead author Faris Zuraikat of Columbia University. “Eating too much will cause gastrointestinal discomfort and make it difficult to fall asleep.”
Some people who sleep little don’t suffer at all
How bad is insomnia? There are many people who do not sleep much, but do not believe or do not realize that this is so. They do not experience stress or anxiety or suffer from daily fatigue more than those who sleep well. Moreover, a significant increase in hypertension (high blood pressure) was observed among those who believed they were suffering from insomnia, and not among those who did not complain of insomnia. The same survey found that 37% of people who think they have insomnia actually sleep normally and attribute their daytime ailments to insomnia. And other studies have shown that sleep anxiety alone can lead to long-term insomnia.
Headlines that make people worry about not getting enough sleep are themselves causing some of the problems they describe. This brings me back to the beginning of this article … There is ample evidence that getting regular, quality sleep is important. But it is also important what we think about the quality of our sleep.