Sleep deprivation: Health and Reduced life expectancy

In the last 2 weeks, I have heard of at least 3 seemingly healthy people in their 20s that just slumped and died. Unbelievable right? One of them actually died while doing his regular exercise somewhere in the United States, another in a bus in London. Another was actually a doctor here in Nigeria who just graduated from medical school. In Nigeria, medical school is no joke – it can take up to 12 years as in the case of a friend of mine, thanks to strikes and some challenges. Achieving something in life and not living long enough to reap the reward? Scary. The question I ask each time I hear such news is “how?” I ask because I wonder why someone who appears healthy, is young and seems to be doing all he can to stay fit can just slump and die!

Now this brings me to some news articles I read recently on young people dying suddenly due to lack of sufficient sleep. I know from past research and study that short sleep duration (5-6 hours) increases the risk for high BP (blood pressure) compared to those who sleep longer than 6 hours per night. People who sleep less than 5 hours a night have an increased risk of heart attack, cancer, arthritis and heart disease. Now let’s not forget that heart attack can kill suddenly. A lot of people think not sleeping enough is a thing of prestige – they actually boast about catching only 3 hours of sleep and being able to continue their day with so much vigor. Really? Sounds like trying too hard to convince me you are ok. The truth is we all experience occasional sleeplessness and the resulting drowsiness and lack of vigor the next day but ongoing sleep deprivation can seriously affect your health.

Ideally, how long should you sleep for?
When I decided to write on sleep deprivation, I had to “dig out” my masters dissertation as I remember having to write on sleep duration during the literature review. I wrote briefly on the sleep-wake cycle. The normal sleep-wake cycle for humans is about 8 hours of sleep at night and 16 hours of daytime activity. Disruption of the sleep-wake cycle results in suffering from short sleep, difficulty falling asleep, frequent waking, early waking and waking without feeling refreshed. I also found out that frequent waking during the night or waking without feeling reenergized can lead to behavioral, psychiatric and heart disorders. The truth is even if you eat healthy and keep fit but sleep for less than 7 hours a night, you could still be at risk of heart diseases and ill health.

Why are people sleep deprived though?

      1.Long working hours
      My masters dissertation was on migrant workers and their Health and Safety. Many of them work over the recommended 48hours maximum a week. Some over 10 hours extra. I know of one who works up to 80 hours a week in London trying to earn high enough to take care of herself amd family back in Uganda. Putting in all those extra hours affects sleep as there is an increase in the chances of short sleep. Relaxation that is needed for full recovery after work is also affected. Most of the time, it isn’t entirely the migrant worker’s fault that they work long hours.

      One of the research papers I studied (McKay et al. 2006) found that most temporary migrant workers work two jobs and are even booked by their agencies to carry out work at different workplaces. This means that the same worker is provided to different employers on the same day. This sometimes results in them rushing to next job without having a break or rest period. This can actually make it difficult to keep track of how many hours these workers actually work.

      2. Worries and pressures of life
      I’m going to use myself as an example here. Many years ago, I worked shifts at a supported housing project in London. The early shift started at 7am and ended 3pm while the late started 2:30pm and ended 10am. Home was 30minutes away driving and double that using public transport. Luckily I drove most of the time. For a 7am shift, I had to leave home at about 6:15-6:30am to get to work on time. There were some days I had to work early after a late shift. Those were the most difficult times to deal with. I would get home, make a cup of tea, have a shower, set my alarm to get up at 5:30am and somehow end up in bed around midnight. Between midnight and the time my alarm clock goes off, I would wake up so many times hoping and praying for the alarm not to go off. Lol.

      You see, in my subconscious, I knew I had to wake up early, I knew my sleep wouldn’t be enough and imagined a horrible day so this affected me psychologically. The same happens when I have alot to do in so little time, when I have something I must achieve if not…., or when I know I have some tough times to face at work. Like when I worked with teenage parents. Many of them were going to court to prevent their babies getting adopted or placed in foster care. I had to support them or support social services depending on whatever evidence I had gathered over time working them. Social Services had more power than even my boss and sometimes I had to go against them to protect one of my teenage parents. It was a very challenging job and it caused me sleepless night and even saw my teenage parents in my dream sometimes. I knew I had to leave that job.

      3. You work at night
      Using me again – there was a time I worked only at night – sometimes 3 nights, sometimes 4 nights a week. I was at Uni at this time studying for my first degree. Initially, I worked at a big store demonstrating their goods 3 times a week. The money wasn’t great. Then my friends told me about working nights and earning double what I as getting. They were doing it and claimed to be coping with it. After a night shift, I would get home at about 8am and try to sleep shortly after or go to Uni to attend lectures. Most of those days, I never got any sleep or slept for 2 or 3 hours never feeling refreshed. In class, I never learnt much. I would struggle to keep my eyes open even coffee couldn’t help. I was always tired. I didn’t do it for long. Weeks later, I was back to my day job. Looking back, I can only be thankful that it didn’t affect my health and that I stopped when I did.

My little advice.
Now if any of this sounds like you, I won’t advice you to leave your job just yet – I will only advice you start looking for an alternative right away. Someone has to do the night shifts right? Yes right but at whose detriment? If you decide to do nights, make sure you don’t do it for long.

If you work shifts, make sure you don’t work early after closing late at night. Idealy, have at least 11 hours break between shifts. Try to get to bed as quickly as you can when you get home late at night. On a final note, learn to say no. You don’t have to take on extra work – if you feel tired and need to rest (your body more often than not tells you somehow) then please rest.

For more on health effects of sleep deprivation, check out this detailed article on the harmful effects of sleep deprivation. Watch out also for my post on safety effects of sleep deprivation.

Do you have any other tips for making sure you get a good night’s rest after work? Please share it by leaving a comment.