Your Lack of Sleep Could be Killing You: The Sleep Experiment

As some of you may know, I’m a big fan of running personal experiments. I’ve done a Burpee challenge where you begin at 30 Burpees and add 1 a day until the end of the month. I’ve done 100 push-ups a day for a month etc. Primarily just to see if I could do it, but now it’s time for a moment with me on Oprah’s couch; confession: my sleep patterns are awful!

I’ve always been a night owl. For the last 20 years I’ve probably averaged a bedtime of one or 2 o’clock in the morning even on work nights where I had to be up by 7 AM. I’ve always liked my “me” time, and with a busy life it seemed like the only way to get some alone time was by staying up late. This is terrible habit, and it’s awful for you!

According to Healthline, prolonged lack of sleep can lead to some pretty serious things:

  • Memory issues
  • Trouble with thinking and concentration
  • Mood changes
  • Increased likelihood of accidents
  • A weakened immune system
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased risk of diabetes
  • Weight gain
  • Low sex drive
  • Increased risk of heart disease
  • Poor balance

While I’m not sure I’ve experienced any of these effects, the truth is, I’ve been so bad with my sleep for so long, I really don’t think I have a good benchmark. So for this blog post I’ve done the unthinkable – 30 days of proper sleep. Yep. Every night for the past month I’ve tried to go to bed no later than 11:00 PM rising at 7 AM for a total of eight hours of sleep. On weekends I’ve allowed myself a little leeway with the knowledge that I can sleep in, but as I learned, some consistency is important in order to really benefit.

Week 1

OK, this week was a roller coaster, and probably the most interesting week of the experiment. The first night was a really uneven night. I woke up constantly throughout the night beginning at 2 am and had some pretty bizarre dreams. But I have to admit, I did wake up pretty refreshed. The second night was a little more even and lacked the dreams, but I was completely awake by 6am, so I got up early, worked on the blog a bit and made myself a large breakfast before getting ready for the day and going to work. I’ve never been a morning person, but Day 2 was pretty nice! Sadly, It wasn’t the norm. I think it was all a part of my body trying to get used to this new schedule. The downside was that throughout the week, I woke up a lot during the nights. Again, I think this was just part of my body getting used to a new schedule.

So Whats The Point?

So if week 1 wasn’t a smashing success – other than one great morning of breakfast and added productivity, why even bother? Well, there are some pretty sweet perks to proper sleep, that I hope to experience soon; or over time as I continue to get better sleep. Things like:

  • Longer life. A study in 2010 showed that women who got 5 hours or less sleep experienced a higher rate of death between the ages of 50 and 79. While I’m not a woman, I have to presume that same phenomenon affects men.
  • Improved memory. while you sleep, your brain “practices” new skills and strengthens memories through something called consolidation. Long story short, you’ll perform a new skill better once you’ve “slept on it”.
  • Less inflammation. This is one I’m looking forward to, I experience slight pain from inflammation in my elbows after performing certain exercises. Proper sleep has been shown to decrease the amount of inflammatory proteins in the blood.
  • Increased focus. Since sleep deprivation can decrease your ability to focus (something I experienced in week 2!) then logically, by getting proper sleep, I can expect to experience better focus.

In short – pretty much the OPPOSITE of the list I outlined earlier!

Week 2

Most of this week was a repeat of week 1, I really did enjoy the feeling of alertness I was experiencing throughout the day. Pretty much gone were the post lunch nappy feelings I typically experienced. However, I relapsed on Day 9. I had a weak spot and stayed up til 1am because I felt stressed about the need to get a lot of things done. I made the choice and stayed up late. The next morning was awful. My body had gotten used to the extra sleep, so I felt like absolute crap the next day. This was an interesting experiment though, I expected to feel overly tired, and I did. I did not expect to notice difficulty concentrating – after all, I’ve lived like this for 20+ years. However, I DID notice a difference. I wouldn’t say I was really having trouble remembering things, but I was very inefficient. For example, when making breakfast, I’d find myself doing things out of order. I’d grab one or two items out of the fridge instead of everything I needed, make extra trips to the pantry for items I would normally have grabbed all at once. etc. I do not want to repeat this again. after getting used to proper sleep, I’m finding that my body likes it! (surprise surprise right?)

Is this really working?

So the question becomes: “After 20+ years of rotten sleep, is this a realistic experiment?”

After the research I’ve done, I had serious misgivings about whether this experiment would yield any REAL observable results. However, the bottom line is I was on a bad path, so any improvement – is good improvement.

I’ve heard of a sleep debt before, and I’ve even felt it in my poor sleep habits. I’d burn the candle at both ends for too long, the weekend would roll around, and I’d conk out HARD early in the night and sleep til late in the morning. I assumed I had repaid the debt and could then go back to my wicked ways. Not so. In fact, according to Harvard Medical School: “The greater the sleep debt, the less capable we are of recognizing it: Once sleep deprivation — with its fuzzy-headedness, irritability, and fatigue — has us in its sway, we can hardly recall what it’s like to be fully rested.” When I read this, I recalled the comment I made in the introduction of this post “…I’m not sure I’ve experienced any of these effects…”. Yeesh!

Thankfully, paying off your sleep debt isn’t an hour for hour repayment or I’d be in a lot of trouble. For someone who has missed as much sleep as I have, It’s recommended that a few weeks of proper sleep front loaded with a few nights of sleep with no alarm clock waking you in the morning can help correct the imbalance and put you back on track again.

So after reading into this a bit more, I feel confident that this experiment is not only worthwhile to satisfy my curiosity, but probably something I should have done long ago!

Week 3

Honestly week 3 of this experiment was pretty uneventful. I learned my lesson from last week and didn’t have any late nights. I’m guessing that I’m beginning to settle in to an earlier routine. If I’m completely transparent however, I am having a tough time going to bed early on weekends. I’m definitely still getting a full 7-8 hours of rest, but I’m opting to stay up later and then get up later in the morning. I wonder if this is having an impact on my sleep during the rest of the week because I’m allowing my self to stay up a few hours later on Fridays / Saturdays? I’m not noticing any difficulties falling asleep when I demand an earlier bedtime on Sundays, nor any tougher time rising in the mornings, so I’m left to conclude that as long as I’m getting the required amount of sleep each night, then my body is OK with adapting to a changing sleep / wake schedule.

OK, So How Do I know IF This Is Doing Anything?

After doing a little research, I found that it’s my sleep quality that could be suffering by my erratic bedtimes on the weekends. There are actually ways of measuring sleep quality. One of the most prevalent seems to be the PQSI (Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index). From the test itself: “The PQSI measures the quality and patterns of sleep in the older adult. It differentiates “poor” from “good” sleep by measuring seven domains: subjective sleep quality, sleep latency, sleep duration, habitual sleep efficiency, sleep disturbances, use of sleep medication, and daytime dysfunction over the last month.”

Since this is an experiment, you better believe I took the test – you can too if you’re interested, you can download a pdf to print and take here: https://consultgeri.org/try-this/general-assessment/issue-6.1.pdf

I took this test twice – once based on my current / new sleep schedule, and the second based on my old sleep schedule so I could see the difference. Here were my results (click the image to enlarge). New habits are noted as 1, old habits as 2. I found that my sleep quality is twice as good as it used to be. A score of 5 or higher indicates poor sleep quality and since I moved from a 6 to a 3, I think my original conclusion is accurate; as long as I’m getting the right AMOUNT of sleep, it doesn’t seem that my sleep quality is suffering.

Week 4

Ever hear of Déjà vu ? Because week 4 was pretty much a repeat of week 3. As I learned about repaying your sleep debt, I think I’ve definitely repaid what I owed myself. The trick now is to make sure that I don’t end up back in the red.

So What Can You Do To Get On Track?

I’m assuming that you’re as bad as I was, or at least on a similar path! I pretty much winged it on this and learned as I went along. That worked out well for me, and could probably work out for you too, but in hindsight, I wish I’d done more research prior to starting this, as I found a lot of helpful tools online that I’ve shared with you along the way. If you want to take a crack at improving your sleep habits, I’d recommend the following:

1) Take the PQSI test prior to beginning your journey on this experiment. Knowing where you started makes it easier to appreciate the progress along the way.

2) Avoid caffeine and stimulants after 5 pm

3) Keep a sleep diary. I didn’t mention this; nor in transparency did I do this, but I wish I had. It would have been an interesting way to correlate my sleep patterns with may waking behaviors. I’ll provide a link in the resources below where you can print out a pdf calendar to help you track yourself.

4) Use a sleep calculator to determine when you should go to bed – I used one here: https://sleepcalculator.com/. It’s pretty simple to use – enter the time you need to get up, and it will tell you when you should go to bed. I adjusted my time a bit since I knew I had a sleep debt to pay off, and I had a decent idea on how long it took me to fall asleep, but it’s a good starting point.

5) Commit to this. If you’re a night owl like me, going to bed at a responsible time can be a hard habit to form, but it’s worth it, and after a little time, you won’t even miss those late hours.

It’s worth the effort, and if you’re pursuing any other fitness regimen, you need to make sure you’re getting proper sleep to let your body recover from what you’re demanding of it.

Know someone who might like this article? Please share it with them, or via your social media network, it helps the blog out, and you never know who you might be responsible for motivating to live a healthier lifestyle!

Resources

Health.com – 11 surprising health benefits of sleep

Harvard Health Publishing – Repaying your sleep debt

The Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index

2 Week Sleep Diary

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