We celebrated at my son’s high school graduation dinner last Friday. I was reminded of the novelty of staying up all night when I was seventeen, and at 4 a.m. when I picked him up from his dry aftergrad, how countless sleepless nights have taken away the luster of sleep deprivation. Not quite caught up with my sleep, I spent the early hours of Victoria Day with a patient in labour.
Special events, the stages of our family lives, the demands of school and the nature of our work push aside the priority of a full night’s sleep.
But we can just get accustomed to insufficient sleep (to the detriment of physical, emotional and mental health). We can fall into habits of staying up late at different stages of our lives. Many young people stay up to study; others stay out partying. New parents, especially breastfeeding moms, sacrifice their sleep for their children.
If you need an average of 7.5 hours of sleep each night and only allow yourself 6, you’ll create a sleep debt of 7.5 hours after just 5 days. That’s why teens can sleep well into the afternoon on weekends.
We’re not at 100% without a good night’s sleep. A generation ago, it was customary for doctors in their residencies to work 24 to 48 hours without a break. This was found to be harmful not only to young doctors but the patients they cared for.
When we are sleep-deprived, we are not at our best. We are less alert and more forgetful. We are slower to react and our judgment is impaired. Imperfect as we are, we are more imperfect. We make more mistakes.
Those mistakes can be very serious if you are a doctor or nurse making life and death decisions, an airline pilot, a NASA engineer, the captain of a ship, or the driver of an automobile. Consider the many moments throughout your day where a sleep-deprived error can have serious repercussions.
Next: How can you tell if you’re getting enough sleep. Three questions.