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Dr. David White, M.D.

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One New Year's Resolution Worth Keeping: Get More Sleep

Posted: 01/15/2012 11:00 am

It's no secret that today's nonstop lifestyle is detrimental to our sleep. Whether due to work, television, stress or any number of other reasons, more Americans are staying up late and getting up early. The average American sleeps only six hours and 55 minutes per night during the week, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Additionally, 15 percent of adults and 7 percent of adolescents regularly sleep less than six hours per night. A lack of sleep is taking its toll.

What's the price you pay for sleeping less than the currently recommended amount?

Poor concentration. One early indicator of sleep deprivation is a loss of the ability to maintain attention or stay focused on a given task. Most of us can rise to the occasion and concentrate for a short period of time with generally good results. But, for activities like driving, or any task requiring over five to 10 minutes of serious concentration, inadequate sleep leads to poor outcomes. And, your cognitive impairment will get steadily worse for at least two weeks if you don't sleep longer at night. Many of us have jobs that do not require sustained attention, so we appear to function well with relatively little sleep. However, this does not mean that our brains are working optimally. It simply means that many of us are "on auto-pilot" at jobs that may not constantly challenge our minds.

Memory loss. Another casualty of shortened sleep is your ability to retain memories and learn new skills. Memory consolidation (encoding or firmly implanting a memory in the brain) occurs the night after you learn something while you are sleeping. If you don't get a good night's rest after learning a motor task (like typing) or grasping an intellectual concept, your ability to perform that task or remember that concept is impaired.

Bad choices and bad mood. Your ability to inhibit some risky behaviors is hampered by lack of sleep. Sleep deprivation is also well known to have a negative effect on emotions. Losing sleep flattens your mood and makes you a more dour, irritable and negative individual. Plus, the negative influence on your mood carries over to your ability to address personal or moral decisions effectively.

Sleep experts are currently investigating whether inadequate sleep affects complex brain functions such as decision making, planning and goal-oriented activities. Certainly, a diminished ability to concentrate degrades cognitive ability. However, there is mixed evidence as to whether sleep loss specifically influences complex cognition apart from this loss of attention. It seems that some mental functions are more affected than others by sleep deprivation. Basic decision making, logical deduction and reading comprehension seem to be minimally affected by sleep loss. However, creativity and the innovative aspects of cognition decline.

Whether sleep duration affects athletic performance is not as well studied. It seems quite clear that reaction time deteriorates with reduced sleep. To the extent reaction speed is important in an athletic event, worsening performance can be predicted. Most evidence suggests that short sleep reduces athletic prowess and that extending sleep duration may improve your performance in sports.

Research addressing sleep and athletic performance indicates that:

• Four hours' less sleep (eight to four hours) on a single night decreases accuracy and consistency in throwing darts.

• One whole night without sleep yields slower times for short distance sprints, while an afternoon nap following a night of partial sleep deprivation improves sprint times.

• Increasing sleep for 110 minutes per night for several weeks in college basketball players improves free throw and three-point goal percentage and results in faster sprint times.

It seems pretty clear that there is lot of upside to getting enough sleep. A good night's rest goes a long way toward improving your reaction time, memory, complex cognition and probably athletic prowess. This year, resolve to create an effective nighttime routine and a positive sleep environment. Unplug from the TV or mobile devices before bed and limit your caffeine intake as it gets later in the day. Make sure you get those Zzzs; an adequate nightly sleep has a lot to offer.

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