It’s a well-known fact that many of us are sleep-deprived. We try to convince ourselves that doing with a few hours less of sleep each night can add up to increased productivity, or at least a little more free time to continue scrolling TikTok. But the benefits of sleep cannot be understated.
The dream-conducive REM stage of sleep is critical for helping our brains process and organize relevant information from our waking hours. To put it simply: What we do during our sleep is what makes what we take in during the day useful.
According to a Gallup study, 16% of Americans get six hours of sleep or less. There are plenty of distractions, with constantly evolving technology making it more difficult to get a good night’s sleep; and added pressure, especially as so many employees are logging more hours working than they did pre-pandemic. Parents and caregivers have been especially squeezed.
But the truth remains, when we neglect to bank the seven to eight hours of nightly snooze time recommended by experts, many aspects of our life are affected:
Without sleep, our minds get foggy, and we struggle to form mental connections. In the short term, we may turn to coffee and other stimulants to help get through the day. Unfortunately, this is no match for sufficient rest time.
According to sleep specialist and psychotherapist Heather Turgeon, not only does getting insufficient sleep negatively affect the area of our brain associated with our working memory, but it also allows brain toxins to pile up. “Not getting enough restorative sleep [can] interrupt the formation of memories,” Turgeon told Fast Company. “During the day, we might not feel as sharp, and we may not have as clear a grasp on the information we learned.”
When we’ve received enough sleep, we not only feel more awake during the day, but we may also be more creative. Research from Cardiff University, as covered by The Atlantic, suggests that the two stages of sleep (non-REM and REM) help us make connections between concepts that do not immediately appear related, which is important for creativity. When you wake up from a good night’s sleep, you may suddenly be able to see things differently and more clearly.
Dreams are another essential aspect of creativity. Back in 2014, Fast Company spoke with Stephen LaBerge, a Stanford academic who studies dreams, who explained the phenomenon of lucid dreaming and its connection to stoking creativity. LaBerge described lucid dreaming as, essentially, “dreaming while conscious.” By lucid dreaming, LaBerge argued we’re opened up to a new, judgment-free and even physics-defying playground in which to explore new ideas and thereby help us “hack” our creativity.
Your performance at work
This is another instance when getting insufficient sleep can hurt how well you carry out your work. Multiple studies show there are real eye-popping economic costs to workers not sleeping enough each night. One 2017 study estimates a cost of $411 billion in 2015 dollars, or a 2.28% dip in the U.S. economy, due to loss of productivity from inadequate sleep. (The number is comparably substantial in the other developed countries studied, such as Japan and the U.K.)
Your mental health
Our mental health can gradually become worse with insufficient sleep. Even worse, the act of worrying about not receiving enough sleep can lead to more stress. A recent Gallup and Casper survey revealed that women and young people are most prone to feeling anxious if they anticipate getting insufficient sleep in the night ahead. The same study also notes that insufficient sleep can lead to a rise in absenteeism in the workplace.
“There is a bi-directional relationship between sleep and mental health,” says Rebecca Robbins, PhD, an instructor at Harvard Medical School’s sleep medicine division. “After a night of poor quality or insufficient sleep, we are at risk for mental health symptoms the following day, which can in turn hinder our sleep the following night, creating a vicious downward spiral.”
Longer-term sleep problems have been connected to mood disorders, heightened mental distress, and depression. But don’t get too mired in a less-than-fulfilling night of rest, says Robbins. “We must [also] realize that sleep is not going to be perfect every night. If you find yourself prone toward negative moods after a night of poor sleep, learn to recognize your feeling could be due, in part, to insufficient sleep,” she says. “[Instead,] develop strategies for balancing stressful experiences, which we can throw out of proportion when we are sleep-deprived.”
Your emotional regulation
Your tendency to act impulsively can increase without sleep. Insufficient sleep can also deplete your typical levels of sociability and optimism, which are important for good mental health. Robbins notes that insufficient sleep can cause us to act without thinking. “Unfortunately, [lack of sleep] places the fight or flight response in the brain on high alert. Research shows the amygdala—the brain region responsible for emotions—is simply much more active in sleep-deprived participants compared to well-rested participants.”
Your physical safety
Going through a day with very little sleep can impair your ability to do physical tasks safely, including driving, and operating heavy machinery. In fact, driving while sleepy can be just as harmful as driving while drunk. In a study from the British Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, researchers found that driving after staying awake for more than 17 hours was the equivalent of driving with a blood alcohol level (BAC) of 0.05% (which, generally speaking, translates to 2 drinks in the first hour).
An effective way to get yourself into a habit of good rest is to develop good sleep hygiene. This includes setting up a routine each night, situating your bed in a soothing space, and avoiding blue-lit screens at least 30 minutes before bedtime, according to recommendations from the National Sleep Foundation.