An international team of neurologists recently published a study showing how sleep deprivation can disrupt brain cells' ability to interact and communicate. A night of lost sleep can result in temporary mental lapses that impair memory and distort visual perceptions, according to the study published in early November in the journal Nature Medicine.
Itzhak Fried, the senior author of the study and a professor of neurosurgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and Tel Aviv University, said in a statement that his team discovered that "starving the body of sleep also robs neurons of the ability to function properly."
In a recent study, University of Pennsylvania researchers found that a moderate nap in the afternoon coincided with improvements in people's thinking and memory prowess and may have helped the brain perform as if it were five years younger. The study, published by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, focused on 3,000 older people in China and examined whether those more inclined to take brief naps performed better on mental ability tests.
Afternoon napping is prevalent among older adults in China and is considered part of a healthy lifestyle. Scientists found that people who took a nap after lunch did better on the mental agility tests than those who did not sleep in the middle of the day. Overall, 60 percent of people in the study slept after lunch, for an average nap of 63 minutes. The study concluded that one hour was the optimal nap length and that people who had much longer or shorter rests - or no naps at all - performed up to six times worse on memory and math tests.
The latest research dovetails with longtime warnings about the dangers of insufficient sleep, which the National Institutes of Health says can lead to "physical and mental health problems, injuries, loss of productivity, and even a greater risk of death."
Over the years, sleeplessness has quietly grown into a pervasive problem. One-third of American adults regularly get too little sleep, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly half of all American adults complain that poor or insufficient sleep affects their daily activities at least once a week, according to the National Sleep Foundation. What's more, an estimated 50 million to 70 million Americans have chronic sleep disorders, according to a health survey for the CDC.
Without at least seven or eight hours of sleep at night, Americans face a tough slog getting through the day and leave themselves more vulnerable to illness. Scientists have linked sleep deficiency to many chronic health problems, including heart and kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, obesity and depression.
While the relationship between sleep deprivation and adverse health consequences is not fully understood, according to Alapat, a lot of it has to do with denying the body the rest it needs for healing and to refresh the neurons in the brain, as well as to fight off poisonous substances. "There are toxins that essentially accumulate in the brain that need to be cleared out with sleep" to avoid long-term threats to the immune system and cardiovascular functions, said Philip M. Alapat, an assistant professor specializing in pulmonary disease and sleep disorders at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
The sleep-deprived also perform worse at learning, memory, and creative and analytic reasoning - a special problem for powerful chief executives and decision-makers. And nearly 40 percent of adults have reported falling asleep without meaning to at least once a month, according to NIH. That's a recipe for car crashes, aviation and ship accidents, industrial mishaps and even medical malpractice by exhausted hospital interns.
In general, Alapat recommends that naps last no longer than 30 minutes. When a person falls asleep, the brain goes through several stages of sleep, ultimately leading to the deepest stage, known as rapid eye movement sleep, or REM. Once a person reaches that dreamy state, it becomes much more difficult to wake up clearheaded, refreshed and fully functioning.
Of course, it's easy for Alapat and other scientists to recommend a short nap in the afternoon for the sleep-deprived. For most American workers, finding a time and place to squeeze in a nap in the middle of the day is highly challenging at best. That's especially true in a highly competitive work environment where nappers are frequently stigmatized as lazy or laggards.
However, those attitudes are beginning to change as some employers begin to see the value of having a well-rested and refreshed workforce. A September 2011 study in the Journal of Sleep concluded that employee insomnia was costing U.S. companies a startling $63 billion a year in lost productivity.
The desperate need for brief R-and-R in the middle of the day has given rise to a workday sleep industry, in which office workers downtown or travelers at airports can buy some quiet time for "power naps." Recharj, a meditation and napping salon that opened a year ago in Washington, D.C., has had more than 7,000 visitors. About half of them have availed themselves of a 25-minute power nap in cocoons complete with head pillows, eye shades, blankets and optional earplugs.
"We're seeing between 20 to 30 people each day, with peak time for power naps around lunchtime," says Daniel Turissini, the company's founder. "Power nappers are wrapped 360 degrees in an opaque sound-dampening drapery, lights are drawn down, and binaural beats are played to lull the brain into a transitional state of consciousness. After 25 minutes, a gentle alarm goes off and they are up and out, ready to conquer the rest of the day."
Meanwhile, some of the nation's most innovative companies - including Google, Ben & Jerry's, Uber, PwC and HuffPost - have installed napping spaces for their workers.
Alapat cautions that while naps may provide a short-term boost in alertness and performance, they can't regularly make up for lost sleep.
"What we have found is that people who are perpetually sleep-deprived - who consistently report less than seven hours of sleep - tend to have adverse health consequences," he said. "And so if you are having to use naps on a daily basis to make up for what appears to be chronic sleep deprivation, you are probably looking at a situation where you're adversely affecting your health overall."