Sleep deprivation is no joke. Here’s what to do about it.
In our wired, 24-7 world where people are facing more demands than ever, getting a good night’s rest is typically the one thing that gets cut. We soldier on, complaining about how tired we are between trips to the closest café for a double-shot Americano (with a splash of oat milk, of course). “People wear lack of sleep as a badge of honor,” says Atul Khullar, a psychiatrist who specializes in managing sleep, mood, and anxiety disorders. “That’s a psychological mindset that leads us to devalue sleep and not to make sleep a priority.” He adds, “There’s a coffee shop on every corner for a reason. People are fully aware of how sleep deprived they are—they can’t go for long without a significant amount of caffeine, which just makes the problem worse.” A lack of sleep is more of a flashing warning light than a badge of honor. The list of detrimental effects includes a weakened immune system, a link to obesity, and even increased mortality. But it’s the effects on our minds that are perhaps most pronounced: poor memory, slower reaction time, diminished decision-making abilities, poor mood, and the exacerbation of depression and anxiety. In his practice, Khullar sees everything from disorders like sleep apnea (when breathing stops and starts) to sleep deprivation. “Someone may present with mood problems or they’re nodding off during meetings, both of which can be due to lack of sleep,” says Khullar.
Here’s a sobering thought: Being tired can be just as dangerous as being drunk.
Fatigue Science, a company that has devised fatigue management technology that’s used by corporations, professional sports teams, and military units, has done fascinating research on this.* In a fatal single vehicle accident a few years ago, for example, the company found that the level of fatigue the driver was experiencing at the time was equivalent to having a blood alcohol concentration between about 0.08 and 0.05 percent in terms of their reaction time and ability to concentrate.
By analyzing the driver’s schedule leading up to the accident, Fatigue Science found that the driver was likely slower to react by 34 percent and more than four times as likely to suffer a microsleep—a period of sleep that lasts up to a few seconds—than someone who was sufficiently rested.
And the effects of sleep deprivation are cumulative. Using specialized software to assess the performance of someone sleeping from midnight until 6 am over a two-week stretch, Fatigue Science determined that effectiveness would drop by 19 percent and reaction time by 24 percent. The chronically sleep-deprived person would be three times more likely to suffer an excessively long lapse in reaction time than someone who’s well-rested.
A recent study showed that 76 percent of US workers surveyed feel tired many days of the week, while 15 percent fall asleep during the day at least once per week.
“When people are feeling groggy, when they can’t get out of bed, they end up taking more sick days,” says naturopathic doctor Chris Habib. “They can’t function, so they find their capacity for work has decreased. They’re less productive. They’re quicker to anger, and they have a shorter fuse. They find their capacity for social interaction has decreased. As a result of all that, they’re more exhausted and more stressed, and it’s a cycle that feeds on itself negatively.”
That cycle involves poor sleep, poor work, and poor health.
“I frequently see people whose lack of sleep is causing health issues, and vice versa,” says Habib. “Sleep is such an important component of mental health. A lot of people who have insomnia end up suffering from depression or anxiety as a result … and a lot of people with anxiety will wake up in the middle of the night, and all they can think of is work.”
Avoid caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol, especially in the evenings. Ensure your bed is only used for sleeping or sex, get physical activity during the day, and don’t do anything stressful in the bedroom (like sending late-night work emails), says Habib.
“Identify any obstacles to good sleep,” he says. “Ensure that the room is quiet and dark. You can try wearing a face mask or using ear plugs. It’s good to have a nighttime routine; make sure you wind down.”
TVs, laptops, cellphones, and other mobile devices should get a hard pass at bedtime.
“There should be no electronic media in the bedroom,” says Khullar. “The phone is the worst. People end up texting or using it as an alarm clock, but it’s very distracting. The light emitted from these devices can keep us awake.”
“If you have to, do it earlier in the day and not for as long,” says Khullar. Keep naps to a maximum of 30 minutes, ideally between 2 and 3 pm.
“Stop watching the clock,” says Khullar. “If you’re awake, you should be getting up. Sit quietly somewhere else and do something very boring. Go back to bed when you feel tired.”
If anxiety is preventing you from falling asleep or is waking you up in the middle of the night, Habib says approaches like meditation, deep breathing, and mindfulness can help.
These supplements have shown promise in some studies, though more research is needed to fully understand their mechanisms of action.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter that blocks impulses between nerve cells in the brain and seems to have a calming effect on the nervous system.
“For people who have difficulty falling asleep because they have restless thoughts, GABA can be relaxing and reduce the amount of those restless thoughts, helping people fall asleep,” says naturopathic doctor Chris Habib.
The herb valerian is often used to treat insomnia. It’s also frequently used in conjunction with other herbs. “Supplements that combine GABA, valerian, skullcap, and lemon balm, each in a specific dose, can be helpful,” says Habib.
Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland that helps control our sleep and wake cycles. Normally, melatonin levels go up in the evening and remain high for most of the night, then drop in the early morning. Natural melatonin levels decrease gradually with age. Melatonin supplements are used to treat insomnia and jet lag.
Who wants to sit at a departure gate for three hours before sitting on a plane for another eight? No one. That’s why full-on gyms are appearing in airports from BWI Marshall in Baltimore to Changi in Singapore, often behind security.
Airport gym startup Roam Fitness, for example, is aiming to be in 20 airports in the next five years. It supplies everything the fitness-minded traveler on a layover might need, from reservable showers to vegan protein powder. You can even buy or borrow workout clothes—think lululemon shorts or Brooks running shoes in exactly your size. If you’d rather wear your own gym clothes, staff will vacuum-seal the sweaty stuff post-workout so it doesn’t stink up your carry-on.
Will gyms on airplanes be next? Maybe. Australian airline Qantas is contemplating turning unused cargo space into an in-flight gym, and aircraft manufacturer Airbus has made a prototype of a modular “flying gym” that can easily be moved on and off a plane.