You Can’t Cheat Sleep

By Robert Kriss

Dr. Phyllis Zee, Chief of the Sleep Medicine at Northwestern Hospital, warned the audience at Horner Park on Wednesday, August 15, that we cheat sleep at our peril. Dr. Zee’s excellent presentation was the first instance of C2ST’s collaboration with the Chicago Park District in the “Science in the Parks” series. Watch the video here.

Dr. Zee explained that three scientists recently shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine for their work in the early 1980’s identifying the genes and protein molecules that drive our twenty-four-hour biological clocks, often referred to as our “circadian rhythm.” Every cell in our bodies has the clock mechanism, and all these clocks are coordinated by the master clock in our brains. The mechanism interacts with light and dark. It keeps us awake and productive (usually) during the day and early evening, and puts us to sleep at night to rejuvenate our systems for another day.

Most of us need seven to nine hours of sleep at night, although some of us can function well with as little as six. But if a person consistently gets less than six hours of sleep at night, they will function at the level of someone who is legally drunk. And they won’t even know it. In fact, sleep-deprived individuals often think they’re performing at the top of their game when, in fact, they’re a danger to themselves and others.

You may think you can cheat on sleep during the work week and make up for it on the weekend. Wrong. It takes more than a weekend of extended sleep to restore you to your optimal performance level, and poor performance is not the only result of sleep deprivation. Lack of sleep has been linked to increased risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and dementia. Attempting to catch up on the weekends may not reverse the cell damage caused during the week.

You may also think that you can train yourself to need less sleep. The research is mixed on this point. Some scientists say a person has a built-in minimum requirement that cannot be significantly changed on a consistent basis. Other scientists say that some, but not all, people can train to reduce the amount of sleep they need, but we’re still talking about a minimum in the neighborhood of six hours. Considering the long-term adverse health effects resulting from too little sleep, it may be better to be safe than sorry. Or at least consult with a sleep specialist such as Dr. Zee before you embark upon a lean-sleep lifestyle.

So how can you determine if you’re sleep deprived? As mentioned above, sleep-deprived people may subjectively feel that they’re doing great when they’re actually doing poorly. One objective way to test is to sleep in on the weekend and compare the time you get up without an alarm clock to the time you usually set your clock for during the week. If the difference is more than two hours, you may not be getting enough sleep during the week.

Dr. Zee also offered a few tips to help people get the sleep they need. She has many more ideas that she can offer in a one-on-one setting. But as a general matter, exercise in the afternoon is good. In any event, avoid exercising within three hours of bedtime. Also, avoid bright lights within three hours of going to bed, particularly the blue light transmitted by computers, phones, and other electronic screens. Late night coffee is also bad. Naps during the day can be fine, but if you’re having trouble falling asleep at night, maybe stop the naps and see what happens. Bottom line though, if you’re having sleep problems, it’s best to see a specialist. The Internet is a helpful start in addressing sleep issues, but it’s no substitute for customized, expert advice.

Dr. Zee’s work is an excellent example of how science can improve our lives. Sometimes you can’t just trust your gut feelings. You need to conduct a few tests, record results accurately and honestly, and learn the facts. We now know we have built-in, genetically driven clocks that we can’t tinker with too much. Understanding what makes us tick will help us keep ticking along happily for many more years.