World Sleep Day, an initiative of the World Sleep Society, is coming up on March 16th. It was created to promote awareness among healthcare professionals and the general public regarding the importance of adequate sleep quantity and quality for our health. Sleep is literally a basic human need, and as crucial for our survival as water and food. Nevertheless, sleep problems are diverse, greatly under-recognized, and affect up to 45% of people — which is huge.
Among sleep disorders, sleep-related breathing disorders and insomnia are the most common. No less important is the prevalence of sleep deprivation which, either voluntary or voluntary-ish (in relation to professional or family demands), is considerable and increasing. Much has been written and discussed among healthcare professionals involved in sleep medicine about how the changes in our society in the last few decades, either on a professional or a social level, contributed to sleep curtailment and dysfunction. These changes include 24-hour functioning of more industries and services, much higher than recommended light exposure during nighttime, and the use of electronic devices. All of these have a negative impact on our sleep and circadian rhythm.
You might ask, Why is this so bad? Well, it has been demonstrated that most sleep disorders are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, weight gain (yes, ladies and gentlemen, sometimes we wonder “why is my diet not working?,” inadequate sleep may be part of the problem…), psychiatric disorders, and many other negative health outcomes.
Furthermore, sleeping less than six hours or more than nine hours per night on a regular basis may increase all-cause mortality. In this light, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine issued a position statement recommending a sleep duration of seven hours or more for adults. Of course, there are individual differences, and short and long sleepers do exist — but those are the exception, not the rule. In any case, more than a given number, a healthy sleep is the one which restores and energizes, so that we feel wide awake, dynamic, and energetic all day long.
At this point, you may be asking yourself, or me, why you are reading this. This is all very interesting for sure, health education is always a bonus — but what the hell has any of this to do with your finances?
1. First, being unhealthy costs money, a lot of it…and poor sleep = poor health.
Sleep disorders and sleep deprivation lead to an increased risk for several diseases, as mentioned above, and the relationship is particularly strong for cardiovascular disorders, like hypertension, stroke or myocardial infarction. They likewise increase pain threshold, and so, the likelihood of chronic pain and painkiller intake.
Our immune system is also negatively affected by poor sleep quality and/or quantity: after making contact with influenza virus, we are more likely to develop full-blown flu when sleep deprived, and vaccination efficacy is also decreased. Furthermore, sleep disorders have even been linked to an increased risk for certain types of cancer, with a more robust evidence for breast cancer. It is easy to conclude that all of this leads not only to increased costs with healthcare, but also to lower work productivity and, hence, a potentially lower income.
2. Our brain does not perform its best and we do not make the best decisions when sleep-deprived or sleeping poorly.
One of the things that shocked me the most when I first started studying sleep physiology and disorders was learning that, after 17 hours awake, our cognitive and motor performance is equivalent, or worse, to having a 0.05% blood alcohol concentration, which represents the upper legal limit for driving in many countries. This means that after 17 hours awake (if you wake up at 7 AM, this is after 12 AM) it’s basically like being drunk! And we all know that the best choices are not made under the influence of alcohol.
The prefrontal cortex is one of the areas of our brain most affected by poor sleep. It is responsible for planning, decision-making, adjusting our strategy according to new information and feedback, abstract thought, and social skills, among others. Pretty important in a human being, right? Accordingly, neuropsychological and psychomotor tests have shown that, when sleeping poorly or sleep deprived, we have a shorter attention span, worse memory recall, and learning, and we make more mistakes. Accident rates, whether motor vehicle, professional, or personal, also increase, with the added risk of great professional, personal, and financial costs for both individuals and society as a whole.
In poor sleep conditions our decision-making process also shifts for a sort of “survival mode,” we focus on the short-term and tend to disregard long-term consequences of our actions. Consequently, we crave sweeter and more caloric food, we risk more, favor immediate satisfaction, and ignore future losses. Not the best scenario even for grocery shopping, let alone for more important financial decisions! Or of any other kind, for that matter.
3. Okay, I’m convinced. So what can I do to improve my sleep?
It goes without saying (but I’ll say it nonetheless) that if you have important sleep complaints or excessive daytime sleepiness that can’t be explained by voluntary sleep deprivation (because it, therefore, should improve after increasing sleep duration), you ought to see a doctor — ideally one with specific training and certification on sleep medicine. Most sleep disorders are preventable or treatable, yet less than one-third of sufferers seek professional help.
Outside the realm of specific measures for sleep disorders, we would all benefit from healthy sleep habits, much like we would from a healthy diet. These are commonly designated “sleep hygiene” rules:
- Allow enough time for sleep, at least the minimum you need to feel energetic and alert during the day;
- Establish regular bedtime and waking times;
- Assure a comfortable environment in the bedroom, without excessive heat/cold, light or noise;
- As much as possible, use your bedroom only for sleep (and sex!) — not work, watching TV, eating, using electronic devices, or whatever else;
- Establish a relaxing and pleasant routine for the last two hours before bedtime, avoiding work and computer/tablet/smartphone screen exposure;
- Do not carry your problems with you to bed, but instead allocate a specific period in the day for reflection and planning;
- Avoid excessive caffeine intake, especially in the afternoon and evening (remember there are several caffeinated beverages aside from coffee, including black tea, green tea, coke, etc.);
- Alcohol disrupts sleep, so avoid drinking excessively in the four hours before bedtime;
- Exposure to natural light in the morning is important to reinforce out circadian rhythm entrainment;
- Exercising regularly is beneficial for sleep.
Bottom line: sleep affects your health, your accident propensity, your work quality and productivity and your choices, all of which have an impact on your finances. It also affects your financial decisions: when you sleep well, you are more likely at your best to prioritize and act towards your present and future goals.
Carina is a medical doctor working in neurology and sleep medicine. She lives and works in a European country and is in her mid-thirties.
Image via Unsplash