This sleep-deprived nation

THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco - The Philippine Star

One major phenomenon that has been gradually eroding the health of the Philippines is lack of sleep. From the effects of unbearable traffic to the explosion of the business process outsourcing industry to the geometric rise of Internet usage nationwide, millions of Filipinos are choosing to sleep less and less, with dangerous effects. We seem to think that staying awake to finish work is the lesser evil. It isn’t. It is a danger we have to address, and soon.

What does sleep really do for us? Aside from allowing the body to rest, sufficient, quality sleep allows our minds to refresh, and facilitates the transfer of short-term to long-term memory. Proper sleep has been proven to help students perform better in school the following day, particularly in complicated tasks like mathematics. Decision-making and emotional stability are also affected by the right amount of good sleep.

A team of scientists at the University of Rochester recently discovered that during sleep, the brain purges itself, flushing out its own chemical waste through a hidden network of channels that resemble a plumbing system. These pipes simulate opening up during sleep. In addition, researchers think that this cleansing process uses up a lot of energy, which may explain why the brain waits until bedtime to take out its own trash. Also, your body saves the energy it uses to see while you are sleeping, which possibly adds needed fuel to this process. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine also revealed that growth hormone is released in children while they are asleep. Of course, there is still some debate as to which is the optimum time to sleep, some suggest 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., others say midnight to 6 a.m. is best.

Studies have shown that, in the last few decades, children (and therefore, adults) have been sleeping less and less. Adults whose parents enforced strict bedtime rules have been found to function more efficiently at work and sleep more than hour more than those who grew up with no rules on when to sleep. Other research showed that if you deprive a healthy adult of sleep for six straight days, his body chemistry will resemble that of someone literally twice his age, and it will take him a full week to get his metabolism back to normal.

Having covered international sporting events like the Olympics, this writer has experienced first-hand how being unable to sleep at the right time can lead to weight gain. The most basic explanation is that you try to consume more sugar, caffeine, or food on general to keep yourself awake through the hours you should be sleeping. But actually, lack of sleep impairs our ability to use the food we eat properly by about 30 percent. The body is also unable to process glucose as well as it normally should, resulting in lethargy. In addition, the brain is not absorbing enough of the nutrients it needs for optimal performance, and Cortisol is released, causing faster aging. Lack of sleep has already been linked to diabetes and high blood pressure, as well.

A graphic example of the terrible effects of sleep-deprivation is the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in January of 1986. According to the National Sleep Foundation in the United States, the managers of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration may have made critical errors in judgment because they were awake for 20 hours before blast-off. The explosion killed all seven crewmembers, including teacher Christa McAuliffe, the first civilian meant to be sent into space, and led to the eventual cancelling of the space shuttle program itself.

In 2013, ABC News reported that a new study reinforced the notion that insufficient sleep can also cause weight gain. The study compared data from a group that had four nights of normal eight and a half hours of sleep to the data gathered on the same group a month after, when they were restricted to four nights of just four and a half hours of sleep. After restricted sleep, fat cells taken from the stomachs of the participants became less sensitive to insulin, the hormone that helps control blood sugar. This condition is linked to both obesity and diabetes. Dr. Matthew Brady of the University of Chicago, the senior author of the study, said that the same sleep deprivation is quite common during the work week when a lot of executives survive on four to five hours of sleep. We can only assume that students do the same thing during on school nights, particularly towards the end of terms, when preparations for theses and oral exams pile up.

Lack of sleep is prevalent in the land transportation industry, where long-haul bus and truck drivers often take on round-trip assignments or double shifts to be able to make more money and earn bonuses. Bus companies in the Philippines have had to tighten up on drug testing, as some drivers use banned substances to keep themselves alert when they experience sleep debt. In the US, truck drivers are required to rest after 11 hours of driving, while airline flight crews must have at least eight hours of sleep in any 24-hour period, regardless of where they are flying. The risks are just too great. Lives are at stake.

Sleep debt is even more critical in children. The SLEEP Conference held in June revealed some alarming data. Sleep debt can shorten children’s attention span and even bring on ADHD-like symptoms. The research says that children can be misdiagnosed with ADHD merely because they aren’t spending enough time sleeping. Unlike tired or sleepy adults who become slow, children compensate for their exhaustion by becoming hyperactive and loud, and cannot comprehend why they are becoming so.

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