According to the National Center for Health Statistics, more than 60 million Americans suffer from persistent insomnia.
In a sense, we are a nation of insomniacs, and the problem is not going away; in fact, it is getting worse.
In the highly demanding world of business, quality sleep can make a significant, positive difference, especially in terms of enhancing health, performance and creativity.
Generally speaking, sleep can be divided into two phases. These are called nonrapid eye movement and rapid eye movement sleep.
Even in the 21st century, we do not know exactly why we sleep. However, some of the complications that are brought on because of a lack of proper sleep can be quite serious.
Key studies in recent years have posited a strong link between sleep deprivation and cardiovascular disorders, the No. 1 cause of death in the United States. Another study demonstrated that insomnia, in particular, was a major contributor to stroke, especially in younger men who may be dismissive of their symptoms.
The past decade has seen an exponential rise in the number of people diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Several studies noted significant changes in glucose metabolism, insulin resistance and an increased risk of type 2 in people deprived of deep sleep.
There is a strong correlation between sleep deprivation and insulin resistance. Changes in glucose metabolism during sleep and throughout the day also have much to do with the activities of two hormones, leptin and ghrelin, which are regulated during sleep.
When we receive proper sleep, leptin levels rise, reducing the desire to eat. The body hence shifts into a restoration state, conserving and building up resources.
On the other hand, when we are sleep-deprived, the drop in leptin coincides with an increase in ghrelin levels, causing us to look for carbohydrates and salty foods during the day to increase much-needed adaptive energy.
REM sleep, which is associated with dreaming, plays a significant role in memory and information processing. Loss of sleep, especially REM sleep, can have a very alarming impact on simple recall and concentration.
A fascinating study last year in the Journal of Science reported that perhaps one of the functions of sleep is to provide the brain with a “neuronal shower,” whose very purpose is to remove neurotoxins from the central nervous systems.
Effective decision-making and impulse control, for example, also are improved during sleep. Hence, we may see an increase in aggressive and impulsive behaviors after prolonged periods of sleep deprivation.
Beyond the physical and psychological benefits of sleep, there are more fascinating areas being explored. At least two Nobel prizes were won because of dreams that directed the researcher to either approach the problem from a different perspective, or the dreams simply provided the answer.
While many suggest a tenuous connection between sleep and creativity, based on anecdotal data, there are convincing, objective data suggesting that certain stages of sleep can promote creativity and enhance problem-solving.
One study in particular found there was a significant improvement in creativity when participants were allowed to receive sufficient REM sleep, while those who slept but were deprived of REM sleep did not show such improvements.
The study also showed one of the key aspects of tapping into this creative process had to do with being exposed to a certain problem prior to falling asleep. It appears that those aspects of our consciousness that may be resistant to viewing a problem from another perspective (“thinking outside the box?”) tend to become quiescent during REM sleep, hence allowing other perspectives and solutions to unveil themselves.
First and foremost, there are a number of medical conditions that can contribute to changes in sleep patterns, cause insomnia or even excessive sleep. These need to be ruled out, and the person who can help is the family physician.
One of the major contributors to disrupted or insufficient sleep is excessive thinking. We may think either too much about the future or too much about the past. Either way, thinking keeps us up, wakes us up and cheats us of the beneficial aspects of sleep.
Hence, consider mind-quieting techniques (e.g., relaxation, prayer, meditation).
Many sleep disorders can be improved with proper sleep hygiene, such as keeping a regular schedule for going to bed and waking up. A regular sleep schedule by itself can bring about significant improvements in sleep quality.
Sleep is a most complex, multifaceted, mysterious, fascinating phenomenon with many properties yet to discover. But above all, it is so critical to our health, performance and creativity that we should not take it for granted.
Micah Sadigh, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Cedar Crest College, Allentown. He is the author of five books and has published papers in the areas of sleep and sleep-related disorders. He can be reached at email@example.com.