Poor Sleep Is The New Smoking


Not sleeping eventually kills you

Insufficient sleep seems ok in the short term. In the long term, it destroys your health and kills you.


In the excellent, factually inspired movie Concussion, Dr. Bennet Omalu sees something that should have been obvious to everyone.  The clues were all around, but nobody was observing them – a huge set of dots that nobody had bothered to connect.  One had to look not only beneath the surface, but over a long span of time to see what is now known, thanks to Dr. Omalu, to be a fact: head trauma from football over prolonged periods of time leads to brain damage.  The result was an enormous settlement to past and current NFL players to compensate them for the irreparable damage they suffered to their health as well as education to all current and future players as to what they are up against.  In the wake of this groundbreaking work, any endeavor which involves head trauma is being reevaluated for similar consequences.

What made Dr. Omalu’s discovery of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) so difficult was the fact that current medical technology does not allow us to inspect the interior structures of a living person’s brain in detail.  Existing technologies such as CAT, PET, MRI and SPECT scanners all give what is a fairly limited look into the brain of a living human.  While technological advances will very probably allow us eventually to see as much of the brain as we can most other areas of the body, the only way to currently see the condition of the brain is by actually going into it.  This limits the possibility of examining most brains to after death, which is what allowed Dr. Omalu, a forensic medical examiner, to connect the dots nobody else did.

What I find most disturbing about Dr. Omalu’s outstanding work is that the damage football players suffer as a result of repeated head trauma leads to conditions in the brain which we now know are extremely similar to those who undergo long term sleep disturbances.  CTE sufferers’ brains have neural structures tangled and damaged with Amyloid Beta and Tau protein plaques, exactly as those who suffer from long term sleep disturbances develop.  While the mechanism of the brain damage is different, the result is the same: cognitive function damage, memory loss, mood disorders, Alzheimer’s disease, and more.  Sleep is currently the only natural process we are aware of that flushes these deadly toxin proteins from the brain.

Once again, most of us are missing the big picture. 

You know those people who tell you they only need 4 or 5 hours of sleep every night?  They’re wrong. They’re the ones missing the big picture this time.  They’re the ones not connecting the dots. Sure, they may only sleep that much, and they may have even convinced themselves that such an insufficient amount of sleep is ok for them.  But, they’re wrong.  Dead wrong. I meet people all the time who tell me that they only sleep 4 or 5 or 6 hours a night, but say that it’s fine because it works for them.   That’s “all they need.” Some consider themselves “night owls.” They are different: the normal rules of human physiology and health don’t apply to them.  They don’t say that last part, but that’s what they’re implying. From my perspective, they are fools.

The trouble is that, with sleep, the most critical factor in seeing the big picture is time.  We cannot see what effect time will ultimately have on our poor sleep habits.  For that, we’d need to see decades ahead into the future.  There are, however, clues that will tell us what is going to happen if you pay attention to them.  Clues that have surfaced via our societal mortality statistics.

I can tell you something about all those who think they can survive on 6 hours or less of sleep per night:  I can tell you with 100% certainty that all of them will die someday.  I can also tell you with only slightly less certainty that the majority of them will die of the 10 main causes of death in the US today which are:

  1. Heart Disease
  2. Cancer
  3. Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease (Lung Cancer, COPD, etc.)
  4. Accidents
  5. Stroke
  6. Alzheimer’s Disease
  7. Diabetes
  8. Influenza
  9. Kidney Disease
  10. Suicide

You will notice that ‘natural causes’ is not among these. (If you’d like to know what we used to die of 150 years ago before we stopped sleeping properly and when 9 of these causes were different, see my recent blog entry here)

The problem with cheating your sleep and deluding yourself that YOU are the one exception who doesn’t need the same amount of sleep as every other human on earth is that, in the short term, it seems like it is working.  You’re dancing now, unaware that you will pay later, but you will.  We do not societally track how much sleep people get over their lifetime, so we have no smoking gun to point to when they die showing that a lifetime of sleep deprivation was to blame.  Like a bad investment, it works great until it doesn’t, and then it’s too late.  In the same way that small, regular, steady investments into the safest low-risk investment vehicles ultimately lead to a great payout after most of one’s lifetime, proper sleep ultimately pays out in longevity, good health, and excellent mental function until death by natural causes at an old age.  Cheating your sleep seems to not make a difference…until it does.  And then, it’s too late. The smoking gun is the near total change in causes of death in the last 150 years.  In that brief time, we stopped sleeping properly, and we started dying of completely different things.  Only now is this picture becoming clear…and only to some – the ones who are looking.

The big picture in many things is a very hard perspective to get.  When it comes to sleep, the big picture is staring us in the face, but most of us are not seeing it.  The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which does mostly an outstanding job of protecting us from large scale health threats, has declared sleep deprivation to be a national epidemic.  And yet, nobody is paying attention.  As I have written previously, the 10 main causes of death in the US now mostly have one thing in common:  at least 8 of them can be directly connected by medical science to sleep deprivation.  And yet, nobody is seeing the clear intersection.  It is a glaring, obvious connection and if you are one of those people who has deluded themselves into believing that you need less sleep than most around you and that you were made to work and live your life in the inverse of the normal circadian cycle, then I have a very important message for you:  you are destined to become a statistic – one of the majority of people who will ultimately die of the diseases in that leading 10 causes list.  You won’t ever think you had a hand in your own demise.  Like most people today, you will think it was genetic, or that you were exposed to something, or you should have had a different diet, or 100 other things, but that won’t be the case. You will have killed yourself via decades of chronic sleep deprivation which eroded your health, at a glacially slow pace, for your entire adult life. 

Take a look at the age averages at which most cancers are diagnosed. Cancers are most common in people over the age of 70.  Rather interesting, isn’t it, that people generally either never get cancer or get it after age 70?  By that age, a lifetime of poor sleep patterns takes its toll. Even if those patterns are improved – it’s often too late. And if you get cancer from another cause and are sleep deprived, that cancer can grow 50% (or more) faster than if you slept properly.   Now think about Alzheimer’s disease - it is another that generally shows up in older people – those over the age of 65. Stroke, same thing.  Are you getting the picture now? 

It only takes 3 days of sleep deprivation for a perfectly healthy subject’s blood chemistry to swing dangerously into the pre-diabetic range.  All around the nation, people are taking precautions against the Zika virus because they fear illness from an epidemic.  Yet, how many people are avoiding sleep deprivation out of fear of developing diabetes or Alzheimer’s? Far fewer you can be sure.  People are avoiding head trauma to avoid developing Alzheimer’s disease or CTE, but how many are sleeping 8 or more hours nightly?  People are taking antidepressants in staggering record numbers to beat depression, but how many are making it a priority to get proper sleep?  Over and over, we focus on quick fixes, ignoring the obvious cause that keeps becoming more obvious:  we don’t sleep enough. 

We are a society that likes a quick fix.  We don’t care much for putting in the work, for saving over the long haul and waiting for the payoff at the end.  Most of the time when someone tells me that they’re fine on 5 hours of sleep a night, I just stay quiet.  I know they’re wrong, and I know they’re harming themselves.  Irreparably.  But, I also know that what people believe and what they know are two very different things and most people do not discern between the two.  To tell someone who has deluded themselves that they are doing fine on 5 hours of sleep a night is akin to challenging their political or other dogmatic beliefs.  There’s a saying in science when you’re talking about a health risk: Where are the bodies?  In the case of sleep deprivation, the bodies are everywhere.  As a society, we are killing ourselves via the one thing, sleep deprivation, that leads to at least 8  the top 10 things that kill us. (Only lung disease, the number 4 killer which is mainly caused by smoking, is not directly related to sleep, though, like all cancers, it progresses faster once it develops in the sleep deprived.  Influenza, the 8th most common cause, can definitely be contracted more easily and become fatal in the sleep deprived since their immune systems are weakened)

One day in the future, I sincerely believe that we will look back on people of the last few decades who cheated sleep like we now look back on the people of the 1950s and 1960s who smoked incessantly and believed it was a healthy, harmless habit.  Most of those people aren’t around now.  They didn’t see the big picture.  Do you?






Previous Blog Entries


   Breathing: The Key To Sleep

   Sleep: The Ultimate Nootropic

   Is Watching TV Before Going To Sleep Really A Problem?

   Under The Influence

    Alcohol And Sleep

    How Did You Sleep Last Night?

    Exercise And Sleep - Is There A Connection?

    How I Sleep Now

   The War On Sleep





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