13 Reasons You’re Sleep-Deprived

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12 Jun 1966 --- 1960s Patient With Wires Taped To Bald Head Testing Brain Waves For Sanity.
Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/Corbis

The idea of “springing forward” has a cheerful, Easter Bunny–esque ring to it, but the reality is that the time change can seriously throw off your sleep schedule. Sleep happens to be one of Science of Us’s favorite topics, and so this week we decided to revisit some of the most interesting things science has recently uncovered about sleep, or lack of it. Try not to let them keep you up tonight.

You’re a bedtime procrastinator. In an online survey of 177 people, researchers in the Netherlands found that people who answered “yes” to questions like “I easily get distracted by things when I actually would like to go to bed” or “I want to go to bed on time but I just don’t” were also more likely to report getting insufficient sleep. These bedtime procrastinators, as the researchers dubbed them, admitted they also tended to procrastinate in other areas of their lives, as well. If you spend all day putting off work to play on Twitter, it makes sense that you’d put off sleep for just one more episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, too.

You think you’re a short-sleeper. A handful of people out there only need a few hours of shut-eye and they’re good to go. You, however, are probably not a short-sleeper, as sleep scientists estimate that only one percent of the world’s population possess what has to be the world’s most practical superpower.

Maybe you’re so sleep-deprived you don’t even know you’re sleep-deprived. In a 2003 study, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania found that after two weeks of getting four hours of sleep a night, people told researchers they felt “only slightly sleepy.” “Routine nightly sleep for fewer than six hours results in cognitive performance deficits, even if we feel we have adapted to it,” said Hans P.A. Van Dongen, a co-author of the paper and professor of sleep and chronobiology at Penn, in the study’s press release. And perhaps, Van Dongen and his co-authors argued, the longer you go without adequate sleep, the harder it is to remember what a non-sleep-deprived brain functions and feels like.

You’re drinking coffee after 3 p.m. When I interviewed sleep scientists for my post on getting through a workday on very little sleep, each one strongly recommended cutting yourself off from caffeine around 3 p.m. That’s because it can take up to seven hours for the caffeine to leave your system, so the jolt from a 5 p.m. Diet Coke may still be kicking around later that night, keeping you wired when you’re trying to wind down.

You haven’t yet tried sticking a foot or two outside the covers. As a National Sleep Foundation spokesperson explained to me, in order to efficiently lull yourself off to sleep, keep your body temperature in mind. Rapidly cooling the body seems to have a soporific effect, Natalie Dautovitch said, and one very easy way to do that could be to leave your feet uncovered.

The news is giving you nightmares. For those few weeks when Ebola in the U.S. was all any newscaster seemed capable of talking about, many people admitted on social media that the reports had burrowed into their dreams. It’s not exactly clear what is the purpose of dreaming; some scientists believe it could be our minds’ way of processing emotions, perhaps particularly the negative ones like fear and anxiety. So if you were one of the many we spotted who confessed to having an Ebola nightmare, the unpleasant nighttime experience might have helped decrease your daytime anxiety.

Your job starts too early. A team of sleep scientists from the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine found, maybe not surprisingly, that people who had earlier start times for work and school tended to get less sleep. Their solution, which I heartily endorse: Everyone should start work later! 10 a.m. will do, they reported in a recent paper in the journal SLEEP.

You’re worried about how much you’re worrying throughout the day. People who stay up until the wee hours of the morning were more likely to be hounded by repetitive negative thoughts throughout the day. But then again, it’s hard to go to sleep when your mind won’t shut up about all your various anxieties. It’s a vicious, sleepless circle.

Your partner is keeping you awake. A classic sleep study from the 1960s suggested that when people spent the night alone, they slept more deeply and woke up fewer times throughout the night, compared to the nights they spent sleeping next to their partners. Maybe Rob and Laura Petrie knew what they were doing.

You refuse to put the smartphone away. Or tablet, or ereader — anything emitting that accursed blue light, which, research suggests, can decrease secretion of melatonin (the hormone that helps you drift off to sleep). Staring lovingly into a screen right before bed is a pretty good way to ensure that you’ll have trouble falling asleep.

You work in a sad, windowless office. Or you sit too far away from a window to benefit from the natural light it lets in. Researchers found that people who worked in offices with no windows, or whose desks were too far away from windows, slept an average of 46 fewer minutes per night when compared to their window-having brethren. Check your window privilege, please.

You have a baby. Everyone knows new parents will be woken several times throughout the night by their babies’ cries, but scientists are only starting to understand just how detrimental those sleep interruptions really are. In an experiment, researchers at Tel Aviv University had students sleep one normal, uninterrupted night; throughout a separate night, however, the students received four phone calls, instructing them to complete a computer task before going back to sleep. The next morning, they took tests to measure their cognitive solving skills and filled out a questionnaire to measure their moods, and just one night of interrupted sleep reduced their attention span and fouled their moods.

You have a TV. Researchers asked people about their sleeping habits and their coping strategies for dealing with their stress, and then followed up with them one year later. They found a (slight) increase in insomnia when people dealt with their stress by distracting themselves with TV and movies, instead of healthier (if less obviously fun) habits like exercise or meditation.