When students juggle a lot of activities on a daily basis, one of the first things they cut out is sleep, but long-term sleep deprivation can lead to severe physiological effects — this was the message James Maas wanted to get across to his audience at his lecture, “Sleep for Success,” on Feb. 11.
Maas, the man who coined the term “power nap” 38 years ago and CEO of “Sleep for Success!” and “Sleep to Win!” was invited to speak at the Center for BrainHealth’s ongoing “The Brain: an owner’s guide lecture series” about his findings on sleep deprivation and its effects on the human body.
Since his retirement in 2011, Maas speaks to more than 100 high schools, professional athletic teams and college students each year about the importance of sleep and why adolescents and teenagers fail to reach their full potential due to sleep deprivation.
“Sleep deprivation helps significantly (increase) risk for hypertension and certain types of strokes, type 2 diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer’s and cancer,” he said. “All of those things weaken your immune system and make you more vulnerable, and that’s just the physiological effects. Then there’s irritability, anxiety and even clinical depression, and a tremendous effect on your brain waves and the cognitive processing. You can’t remember, you can’t maintain creative and critical thinking skills, you take risks and it manifests into how long you’ve got to live.”
Effects of sleep deprivation
Sleeping less than six hours increases the body’s susceptibility to viral infections by 50 percent and 23 percent more likely to be obese than someone getting the adequate sleep, Maas explains in his book, “Sleep for Success.”
For teenagers and adolescents, right from puberty until about 24 years of age, a full night’s sleep is actually 9.25 hours of sleep each night for proper body and brain functioning, Maas said. For adults older than 24 years, the need for sleep drops to between 7.5 to nine hours of sleep each day.
An estimated 30.9 percent of 2,330 people in the age group 18 – 24 years sleep less than seven hours a day on average, and 4.5 percent reported to have nodded or fallen asleep at the wheel at least once in the 30 days prior to the survey, according to the last released sleep statistics in CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on Mar. 4, 2011.
Of the 7,428 participants in the American Insomnia Survey, 23 percent were seen to have insomnia, with a higher prevalence among those who had a college degree, according to the survey results released in 2011.
A 2012 research estimated that insomnia-related disorders cause combined economic losses of $31.1 billion in the United States annually.
One of the most common consequences of sleep-deprivation is a selective loss of rapid-eye movement sleep, or REM, which occurs only after a few hours of sleeping, and the lack of which leads to memory and other cognitive impairments, said Lucien Thompson, program head for neuroscience at the School of Behavioral and Brain sciences, in an email to The Mercury.
“The brain’s attempted solution the next day is a phenomenon we call REM-rebound: The brain tries to snatch a few moments of REM whenever it can, i.e. whenever you’re sitting down, comfortable and can get away with it,” he said in the email. “While this sometimes works, it has noticeable side effects: You lose muscle tone when in REM sleep, so if you’re sitting in class, your eyes close, your head bobs forward or backward, you may drool on yourself … The consequences are much worse if you’re driving or operating heavy machinery: Losing muscle tone and attention to your surroundings is not safe at any rate of speed, and can be fatal.”
Alison Perez, a doctoral student at the Center for BrainHealth who works on healthy aging symptoms, said she found through her research that sometimes cognitive decline due to prolonged sleep-deprivation can be misdiagnosed as early-stage Alzheimer’s disease.
“It’s concerning to think about it like that but I do think that if you don’t have a good sleep habit for long enough it really does impact cognition in a negative way,” Perez, who attended Maas’ talk, said.
Stress is one of the primary known causes of insomnia, Maas said, and needs to be countered in any way possible — yoga, meditation, exercise or even time management — to eliminate the cause of the stress.
“Stress is the main culprit; that and caffeine after two in the afternoon, and any liquor within three hours of bedtime and certainly drugs — all can lead to stress,” he said.
One of the functions of sleep (particularly the sleep early in the night, which is largely slow-wave or synchronous sleep) is restorative, Thompson said.
The brain essentially powers down to idle, letting the complex network of cells in the brain using a disproportionate share of the body’s glucose and oxygen supply to detoxify and recycle materials for more active moments later, he said.
One of the other major functions of sleep, which occurs later in the night, involves alternating large amounts of REM with the earlier synchronous sleep is also memory-related. The brain eliminates temporary memories such as events of the day that catch attention, and focuses on consolidating a much smaller number of memories into longer-term storage, Thompson said.
“Sleep is a way to reenergize the brain; it’s a way to get back all that expended energy and the reserve that you pull from all day long,” Perez said. “So when we don’t get enough sleep, it’s like we’re operating on a half-empty tank of gas: You’re going to run out, and you’re going to run out more quickly than you would if you’d had a full night’s sleep.”
Are sleeping pills the answer?
Adjusting the sleep cycle and getting adequate sleep in a multi-tasking society is easier said than done, partly due to societal reasons but also due to physiological ones.
Teenagers find it difficult to get to bed early, primarily due to the release of melatonin, a growth hormone secreted late at night. Sticking to a pre-bed ritual can help establish a healthy sleep cycle, although sleeping extra during weekends or sleeping during the day cannot compensate for the hours of sleep lost at night, Maas said.
While a short power nap — a 15 or 20 minute state of rest — can help relax the brain, sleeping too much in the middle of the day can disrupt the normal sleep cycle at night and induce grogginess, he said.
Good sleeping habits depend not only on the quantity of sleep, but also on the quality of sleep. Having a bright light on an alarm clock while sleeping, watching television before going to bed and sleep interrupted with phone beeps inhibit a good night’s sleep.
Maas is famous for having taught the largest live lectures with 2,000 students at Cornell, and in 1969, he gave up other research interests to become a sleep educator. Until his retirement in 2011, his classes dealt with sleep, effects of sleep deprivation and a study of sleeping pills, he said.
“Sleeping pills can kill you,” Maas said. “They can cause cancer, heart attacks, strokes, memory loss — they’re not a good idea.”
Instead, he recommends alternate behavior therapy, learning the rules of good sleep hygiene and valuing sleep. There are also different compounds that are coming into the market that can help teenagers change their sleep cycle, which are good, Maas said.
Time management, however, is the best strategy to get the amount of sleep needed by the body, he said. Instead of waiting between classes wasting time, students can finish all they need to do in 16 hours, for which they now use 19 hours a day.
“The problem is, in our society, we still think it’s macho to get away with as little sleep as possible, but literally, sleep deprivation makes you clumsy, stupid and it shortens your life,” he said.
This article originally appeared as “Cognitive health rests on a good night’s sleep” as part of “Brain Matters” in the Feb. 24 print edition.