“I get four to five hours of sleep.” So say some high-profile high achievers. It can make some people wonder if they’re just not being as productive as they could be. Not so, say sleep experts. The amount and quality of sleep can affect every area of your life.
“There are a lot of side effects associated with too little sleep,” says Jake Messing, director of behavioral health services at St. Catherine’s Hospital in East Chicago.
For one, “Poor sleep affects the ability to work effectively,” asserts Dr. Olusegun Apata, a sleep specialist at Methodist Hospital in Gary. He cites the examples of lack of sleep as a factor in the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown.
But hitting close to home for everyone is the effect of too little sleep on mental health. “Studies have found a definite link between interrupted sleep and mood swings,” says Apata.
If you’re thinking it’s natural to feel a little cranky from lack of sleep, that may be oversimplifying. “I always tell people at stress management seminars that lack of sleep is usually the first sign of stress,” says Messing, and it can lead to difficulty concentrating, even depression. In a 2005 Sleep in America poll, people who were diagnosed with depression or anxiety were more likely to sleep less than six hours at night.
ADHD and sleep
The problem isn’t limited to adults. Apata says studies show a link between ADHD in children and the quality of their sleep. “When kids come into my office (when ADHD is suspected), the first thing I ask the mom is, ‘Does your child snore?’ The mom will be surprised and say ‘Yes.’ Children who snore often have enlarged adenoids, causing sleep apnea.” And sleep apnea can cause symptoms of ADHD, Apata explains. In those cases. “The first line of therapy is to relieve the obstruction,” by removing the enlarged adenoids (a patch of tissue in the back of the nasal cavity). The resulting uninterrupted sleep can resolve issues associated with ADHD — and remove the need for Ritalin, often prescribed for ADHD.
Sleep-disordered breathing affects up to 25 percent of children with ADHD, according to a study reported at www.health.harvard.edu.
Sleep and depression
What about recent studies showing a connection between too much sleep and depression? Says Messing, “The most common symptom of depression is too much sleep—but it’s a restless sleep, tossing and turning.”
Apata says studies show there’s a link between obesity and lack of sleep. “And the more people weigh, the greater depression they may experience, so it’s a triad.”
It may sound counterintuitive, but lack of sleep can result in mania. “You can get super energized, but not in a positive way,” says Messing. “You’re going 100 miles an hour, like you’re on speed, but you’re not on drugs. You walk and talk fast, maybe go on a spending spree. When people come in with mania, we try medication to help them sleep and the symptoms are gone. It was just plain sleep deprivation.”
The most extreme sleep deprivation, not sleeping at all for perhaps three days, can result in hallucinations. But quality of sleep is just as important. When REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is interrupted, “You’ll begin to hallucinate because you’re not dreaming. If you’re not dreaming at night, you’ll begin to dream during the day,” says Messing. He recalls a startling study in graduate school. Students in the study went to sleep, then, “We’d wake them up during REM sleep. We had to stop the experiment because the students were hallucinating.”
Apata cautions that the effect of lack of sleep has been compared to being impaired because of using alcohol. The National Transportation Safety Board attributes 100,000 auto accidents a year to sleepiness.
Messing urges seeking help if troublesome symptoms persist, first to rule out any medical condition. “Sleep disorder can also be the first sign of mental illness, and the earlier it’s treated, the getter and faster recovery there is.”
Finally, pay attention to signs of too little sleep. A Harvard University report on sleep studies says, “if you think you’re doing fine on less sleep, you’re probably wrong.”
Help is out there: “This area of medical practice is my forte; I just love to be able to help people with this,” says Apata.
Courtesy of The Times