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Why It's Okay to Indulge in Sleep

Sleep – The Critical Holiday Indulgence


Holidays are a time for indulgence. A extra sweet treat? Sure, why not. A few extra rounds of eggnog? You deserve it. Veg out in front of the TV for days on end? Absolutely. But one thing you may not prioritize on the indulgence list during the holiday season is sleep.

Americans are sleep-deprived. The average adult needs between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night, yet the CDC estimates that one-third of Americans are regularly getting less than 7 hours. And while many people may treat a full night of sleep as a luxury, the science behind sleep paints a different picture.

What happens when you constantly get less sleep than your body needs? Does your body simply adapt to the lower amount? The answer based on a fascinating study is both yes and no. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania took a group of 48 adults and put them into four different groups. The first group was allowed to get no sleep for 3 straight days. The next group was allowed to sleep for only 4 hours a night for two weeks, the next for 6 hours each night for two weeks, and the last for 8 hours each night for two weeks. They were asked how sleepy they felt throughout the study and also tested on their level of attention. The results were surprising.

When it came to their perception of sleepiness, those with limited sleep times reported feeling sleepier during the first few days of the study, but this sleepiness level then plateaued. Even though they were being sleep deprived, they stopped feeling sleepier. The 4-hour and 6-hour group has similar levels of reported sleepiness. Essentially, it was as if sleep deprivation became their body's new normal over time. But were their bodies really adapting to this sleep deprived state?

Not exactly. Testing of the ability to maintain attention revealed a different story. Over time, each sleep deprived group worsened in their ability. There was no plateauing affect. The longer they were sleep deprived, the worse their performance. In fact, a person who slept only 6 hours per night for two straight weeks was performing at the same level as someone that had been awake for nearly 36 hours straight.

What can you do if you constantly skimp on the sleep? Certainly you can use the opportunity over the holidays to get more of the shut eye. Studies show that the brain is able to recover from chronic sleep deprivation by paying back some of the sleep that was missed. This missed sleep is known as “sleep debt." That means getting the recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep, plus a little extra. In this case, "oversleeping" actually helps to pay back the sleep debt, so it's important to not let sleep debt become so large that even holiday breaks and weekends aren't enough to pay back the burden.

The science behind sleep debt is eye-opening. While your level of sleepiness may plateau, your body cannot simply adapt to chronic sleep deprivation. So this holiday season, use the extra time to indulge your brain with more sleep.

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