Why Are We Ignoring Our Need for Sleep?

We all need to sleep deeply and restoratively to do our very best.

Posted Jan 09, 2020

Countless articles are quoted in the media, health seminars, weight loss/fitness regimens, and advice columns about the need to obtain enough sleep. The consequence of insufficient sleep behind disastrous industrial, or more commonly, highway and household accidents, is displayed as just one reason why this important physiological need should not be minimized.

Those starting on a weight-loss program are told they must get enough sleep, and research points to the overeating and weight-gain consequences of not doing so.  Students and others who must perform well on tasks that require memory retrieval and attentiveness are at a cognitive disadvantage when sleep deprived. In a study in which students were deliberately restricted to just under five hours of sleep for seven nights, tests to determine their mood, sleepiness, and mental performance showed a deterioration in everything measured. Students did not return to pre-test emotional and cognitive levels until several days following the end of the study. The results of this study are so compelling they should be included in college freshmen orientation packages. Although the results are not so clear cut, there have been several studies, as reviewed by Kline, showing that inadequate sleep is associated with decreased physical activity the following day, although the quality of the physical performance may not be impacted.

The list goes on and on, describing the effects of lack of sleep. One of the most glaring effects is detected among those moving from a daytime to a nighttime work shift. A decrease in visual attention was found among shift workers when they first began a night shift following the end of their daytime shift. According to an article by Santhi, Horowitz, et al, studies have shown that when workers had to extend their hours of wakefulness in order to work two consecutive shifts, rather than being able to sleep (residents in a hospital, for example), the increase in errors, accidents, and injuries were not dissimilar to those found among people intoxicated from alcohol.   Their research also found that a significant decrement in visual attention, an increase in errors, and lapses of attention as a result.

Of course, anyone who has experienced the need to engage in a work-related situation soon after arriving in a time zone six or so hours ahead of the departure time zone knows the effect sleep disruption has on cognition, performance, and the tendency to make errors. Imagine if the task awaiting you is working in an ER or overseeing the operation of a power plant.

Marital relationships may also suffer when the arrival of a child brings about days, weeks, or even months of disrupted sleep. One study looking at the effects of lack of sleep during the first month postpartum stated that the toll lack of sleep can make on marital relationships is often overlooked and/or underestimated.

And yet, we still don’t give sleep the respect it deserves. Many of us are unable to obtain the sleep our bodies and brains need. Early school hours, the need to wake very early to avoid long morning commute time, or to complete pre-work chores, exercise, transporting children to daycare or to school, or even taking the puppy out for an early morning walk, cause us to stop sleeping before our bodies are ready to do so. Having spent many years attending meetings in Europe that started at 8 a.m.—despite many of the attendees coming from time zones in which 8 a.m. is really 11 pm-2 am—I wondered how the organizers of such meetings expected we participants to be fully awake and present.

Going to sleep at an hour early enough to allow a full seven to eight hours of sleep is rarely achieved. Many stay awake into the early hours of the morning to study, to finish work taken home from work, to work a second shift or another job, to care for an ailing parent or child, to travel (the so-called red-eye flight from coast to coast, rarely allows a comfortable night’s sleep), or to carry out household tasks or repairs. And often the sleep-deprived individual has no choice. A relative in college had final exams a few weeks ago and, not surprisingly, stayed up for a couple of nights to study. He claimed he had to do it because the exams for his four difficult science and math courses were given over two consecutive days. It probably never occurred to the faculty or college administration that such a schedule would result in lack of sleep for the students. High schools are just as culpable when after-school activities prevent the student from coming home until 6 p.m. or later. Staying up late into the evening to complete homework assignments is typical and, if followed by early morning classes, these adolescents may not get enough sleep until the weekend. 

Must adolescents and adults continue to face these obstacles to adequate sleep? Will they have to do so until they retire or find themselves in a nursing home?  If we are concerned about our physical, mental, and emotional health, we must stop treating sleep as something we will do tomorrow. The need for a good night's rest must be satisfied tonight. 


“Acute partial sleep deprivation increases food intake in healthy men,” Brondel, L, Romer M Nougues P et al, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2010 91: 1550-1559.

“Cumulative sleepiness, mood disturbance, and psychomotor vigilance performance decrements during a week of sleep restricted to 4-5 hours per night,” Dinges D Pack W, Gillen Powell J et al, Sleep 1997; 20:267-77.

“The bidirectional relationship between exercise and sleep: Implications for exercise adherence and sleep improvement,” Kline C, Am J Lifestyle Med. 2014; 8: 375–379.

“Acute Sleep Deprivation and Circadian Misalignment Associated with Transition onto the First Night of Work Impairs Visual Selective Attention,” Santhi N, Horowitz T, Duffy JF, Czeisler C, PLOS ONE 2007; 2: e1233.

“Sleep Disruption and Decline in Marital Satisfaction Across the Transition to Parenthood,” Medina A, Lederhos B, Lillis T Families, Systems, & Health 2009; 27: 153–160.