Starving Dietitian

Sleep It Off


For regular readers, you may remember the set of posts about sleep.

There was Counting Sleep for Sheep, a detailed look at the give and take of energy regulating hormones


there was Sleep: The American Dream, a peek at the typical havoc our diets play on circadian rhythms.

The beauty of sleep is, it never fails to offer new secrets.

In this case, that secret is that many of us are horribly sleep deprived.

Sorry for the bad news.

Take a couple minutes to check out this TEDtalk by Russell Foster.

So the question becomes, “Can anyone really catch up on sleep?”

That’s quite a difficult answer, and one that comes down to time.

As most people assume, sleep recovery from short term deprivation, like last minute studying or meeting a deadline, happens fairly quickly. Generally we’re talking 1 or 2 nights on a normal sleep schedule.

However, the old models for sleep deprivation aren’t so practical when it comes to how humans actually deprive themselves. I’m talking 5-6 hour nights for days or weeks on end.

Sound familiar?

Sadly I’m just as much a victim to this. Sometimes there’s just not enough hours in the day, as the cliche goes.

So what does research tell us happens for routine sleep deprivation?

Nothing good.

For one, general recovery from deprivation takes a 1:1 “repayment”, meaning one extra hour of sleep for every one lost. If we should be getting around 8 hours, every 4 days of a 6 hour night means we owe a whole extra night of sleep. You can see how months of this could quickly remove the possibility of true recovery.

That’s not the end though.

One study found that sleep debt carries a linear cost for cognition. Basically, the more days in a row you get 6 hours or less, the worse your mental performance becomes until you’re performing roughly similar to someone who hasn’t slept for two days straight (approximately 16 hours). We’re still not sure why there tends to be this cap, but I’ve talked before about the dangers of chronic sleep disruption.

We still don’t even know the full effects of long term sleep deprivation, for ethical reasons studies don’t generally go past a few weeks at most.

It’s possible the debt can never be truly repaid, at least in full. On a long enough time frame, constant bodily insults tend to become irreversible. Maybe this is no different.

Everyone makes resolutions to eat better, exercise more, watch less tv, for once I want to see them commit to getting 8 hours of sleep.

Sleep and be good to each other.

– Joshua Iufer, RD

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