By Geoff Williams for U.S. News
Proud that you're awake at all hours and still functioning normally? It may be costing you.
The arguments for a good night's sleep are well-documented, with studies showing that people who get more sleep get fewer colds, tend to maintain a healthier weight and have a smaller chance of coming down with heart disease and diabetes.
But if you're uninterested in the health benefits of sleep, you may want to consider what your sketchy sleep patterns are doing to your wallet.
You're probably sleepwalking through your sleep problem. There are many reasons we don't get enough sleep. Some people are workaholics or night owls. Others are kept up by chronic stress or insomnia, and still others have a disorder like sleep apnea. According to the National Sleep Foundation, more than 18 million Americans have sleep apnea, a condition that causes troubled breathing during sleep, and 75 percent of people with sleep apnea don't know they have it.
What's unsettling is that the average person may not realize they're sleep deprived due to the way the body works. "We habituate to adenosine, a brain chemical that induces sleep. So even though judgment and performance are impaired, we think we're performing just fine. The reality is, they are depriving their brains of a nutrient just as vital as food or water," says Emerson Wickwire, sleep medicine program director at Howard County Center for Lung and Sleep Medicine in Columbia, Maryland. He also teaches non-drug treatment approaches to sleep disorders at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Wickwire continues: "The effects of sleep loss on cognitive processing, concentration and memory are striking and acute. Processing speed deteriorates dramatically with shortened sleep duration, and you can't simply 'catch up' on the weekends.”
If you aren't sleeping, you're putting your career at risk. Nitun Verma, medical director for the Washington Township Center for Sleep Disorders in Fremont, California, sees this a lot. He works with many professionals in Silicon Valley and says there are two typical groups of patients who tend to come into his office.
"The first group is the professional at a larger, more established company, usually in their 40s to 50s," Verma says, adding that these people often feel sleepy at work, which worsens as the afternoon progresses. "They have a fear that some younger, more energetic person is going to take their job or their promotion."
People in their 20s and 30s suffer from sleepless nights, too, Verma says. They have a more active social and professional night life, advancing their lives and careers, and often only sleep four to five hours a night, he says.
"Adrenaline is carrying them during exciting times, but the sleepiness finds them during brainstorming and creative times," Verma says.
Of course, it's easy to dismiss the problems. Occasionally falling asleep during a meeting, aside from the embarrassment, may not be so bad. But do it enough, and it can destroy your career.
W. David Brown, an assistant professor of psychiatry at University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas who is board-certified in behavioral sleep medicine, says that not long ago, he saw a patient who had been disciplined by his supervisor for falling asleep at his desk.
"He was standing in his boss's cubicle and being chewed out for falling to sleep. As this was occurring, he fell asleep and crashed through the cubicle wall," Brown says.
The guy was fired –- but Brown says the supervisor is the one in the wrong. "Most people do not realize that unexplained daytime sleepiness is a medical symptom and should be treated that way. I am certain he would not have been immediately fired if he had a seizure or a heart attack," Brown says, adding that the man was diagnosed with severe obstructive sleep apnea, was treated for it and is now working in a new job without any problems.
Meanwhile, the numbers suggest the country could have a tax-free economic stimulus simply by convincing Americans to sleep better. For instance, a 2011 study in the journal Sleep found that the average American worker wastes 11.3 days every year, adding up to $2,280 in lost productivity. The total cost for the nation: $63.2 billion.
"The fact is that man-made disasters ranging from the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger to the spilling of Exxon Valdez, and the chemical disaster in Bhopal, India, all have sleepiness as a primary contributing factor," Wickwire says.
You may be making bad financial decisions. Unfortunately, disregarding sleep is part of our culture, says Margaret King, director of the Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis, a think tank in Philadelphia. She says we tend to view working hard with little sleep as "a mark of a good work ethic."
But numerous studies show that people make bad choices when they aren't getting enough sleep, says King, who cites a 2011 Duke University study that examined the choices people typically make when they are gambling and sleep-deprived.
"The Duke gambling study found that sleep loss affected impulse control, judgment, emotional response and complex decision-making," she says, adding that the regions of our brains that determine rewards and positive outcomes "were the factors behind gamers making bad calls and taking higher risks on bad bets."
The research is applicable to everyone. You may not regularly roll dice in a casino, but if you're doing your taxes or crunching numbers for work on too little sleep, you could still be taking a gamble.
What if you think you have a problem? Warning signs include "low energy, decreased sex drive, irritability, poor concentration, depressed mood ... the consequences of disturbed sleep go on and on," Wickwire says.
If simply trying to sleep longer isn't working for you, you may want to consult your doctor. (If it takes you 30 minutes or longer to fall asleep, you may have insomnia, Wickwire says.)
"The most effective treatments don't require medications at all, although prescription medicines are also available," Wickwire says.
Julie Friedman, a health psychologist whose specialties include sleep disorder, suggests people get out of bed and read if they've been awake for more than 10 minutes. She also advises: "Use your bed for sleep and sex only."
However you use your mattress, you're probably wasting the money you paid for it if you aren't using it seven to eight hours a night –- the recommended amount for adults, according to most doctors. Another way to look at it: If you're lying awake at night and falling asleep during the day, something is wrong.
Our culture may thrive on people checking and answering email at 3 a.m. and chugging caffeine to get through the day, but sleep, Wickwire says, is the "ultimate energy drink.”