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Is Cutting Back on Sleep a Form of Torture?

How dangerous is sleep deprivation? Is it more harmful to your health, and productivity, than, say, fasting?

I recently read a blog post by Tony Schwartz in the Harvard Business Review in which he suggested that Americans are performing self-torture by not getting to bed early enough each night. Stating in his blog that Amnesty International calls sleep deprivation a form of torture, worse than fasting for a week, Schwartz goes on to quote former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin from his memoir White Nights about being sleep deprived in a KGB prison:

"In the head of the interrogated prisoner a haze begins to form. His spirit is wearied to death, his legs are unsteady, and he has one sole desire: to sleep ... Anyone who has experienced this desire knows that not even hunger and thirst are comparable with it."

No, I don't think most Americans are being wearied to death. But Schwartz does have a point. Americans do sacrifice sleep, well-being and productivity, often for the sake of squeezing in a few more hours of work. A 2008 poll from the National Sleep Foundation found that American workers spend an average of nearly 4.5 hours each week doing additional work from home on top of a 9.5 hour average workday, and acknowledge that work keeps them up later at night.

But is eking out those extra hours of work the best thing for your productivity and your job? The research yells a resounding no:

  • Studies have shown that we have a delayed response time when we cut back on sleep from 8 to 6 hours for a few nights in a row.
  • One study found that participants who were allowed to sleep for only 6 hours per night for 12 nights had response times as poor as those who stayed up all night for one night.
  • One study found that inadequate sleep decreased short-term memory and was associated with poor performance on newly learned or complex tasks as well as difficulty maintaining attention.
Here, a quick interlude to mention and interesting point Schwartz makes: Great performers do not shortchange their sleep (if they did, they might not be so great). He wrote:

Typically, they sleep significantly more than the rest of us. In Anders Ericcson's famous study of violinists, the top performers slept an average of 8 ½ hours out of every 24, including a 20 to 30 minute midafternoon nap some 2 hours a day more than the average American.

Now back to our list of consequences:
  • Our perception of how sleepy we are starts to level off after a few days, i.e., we develop some tolerance to feelings of sleepiness, which may make us unaware of our deteriorating alertness and performance.
  • And the kicker: Compared with those who sleep for 7 to 8 hours, shorter sleepers (usually substantially less than 7 hours) have an increased risk of dying.
In case you're inured to the signs of sleepiness, here are some clues that you're not getting enough sleep:
  • You're not getting at least 7 hours of sleep (some of us need 8, but very few of us need less than 7).
  • You need coffee to wake up or get going each morning.
  • You have difficulty remaining focused and productive when sitting for a while.
  • You may feel blue or irritable.
  • Your memory may not be as sharp as it should be (you've blamed it on age, but it may be sleep deprivation).
So get thee to sleep:
  1. Stop working two hours before going to bed.
  2. Turn off electronics about an hour before bed so that you can unwind (this includes the TV).
  3. Follow the advice I included in my last post on sleep.
Does your work suffer when you're sleepy? Or, do you find you can work well on few hours a night?
Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for the New York Times, national magazines and websites including Health, Prevention, iVillage and the Huffington Post. Follow her on twitter.
Photo courtesy flickr user byrne7214
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