It only takes three consecutive nights of sleep loss to significantly deteriorate your mental and physical well-being. A new study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine looked at the consequences of sleeping less than six hours for eight consecutive nights — the minimum sleep duration experts say is needed to maintain optimal health in average adults.
Lead author Soomi Lee, an assistant professor at the University of South Florida’s School of Aging Studies, found that the biggest jump in symptoms came after just one sleepless night. The number of mental and physical problems steadily worsened, peaking on the third day. At this point, research shows that the human body has become accustomed to repeated loss of sleep. But that all changed on day six, when participants reported that the severity of physical symptoms was at its worst.
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“Many of us think we can pay off our sleep debt on weekends and be more productive during the week,” Lee said. “However, the results of this study show that having just one sleepless night can significantly impair your functioning diary.”
Data provided by the Midlife in the United States study included nearly 2,000 middle-aged adults who were relatively healthy and well educated. Among them, 42% had at least one night of lost sleep, sleeping 1.5 hours less than their normal routines. They recorded their mental and physical behaviors in a diary for eight consecutive days, allowing researchers to review how sleep loss causes wear and tear on the body.
Participants reported an accumulation of feelings of anger, nervousness, loneliness, irritation and frustration as a result of sleep loss. They also experienced more physical symptoms such as upper breathing problems, pain, gastrointestinal problems and other health problems. These negative feelings and symptoms were continuously elevated over the consecutive days of sleep loss and did not return to baseline levels unless they had a sleep of more than six hours.
About a third of American adults sleep less than six hours a night. Lee says that once this becomes a habit, it becomes increasingly difficult for your body to fully recover from the lack of sleep, continuing the vicious cycle of deteriorating daily well-being that can impact professionally. An earlier study led by Lee found that losing just 16 minutes of sleep can affect work performance. Their previous findings also show that a slight loss of sleep can decrease daily awareness, which is a critical resource for managing stress and maintaining healthy routines.
Lee says the best way to maintain a good daily performance is to set aside more than six hours of sleep each night.
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