“For the last few weeks, I have had problems sleeping at night. My sister who is a nurse told me to get help soon, because lack of sleep can lead to serious consequences. I am inclined to believe her because I have noticed that my work output is less than ideal and I have developed a short fuse. What is the truth?”
Perhaps not surprisingly, your sister is right and the sooner you get help for your sleep problems the better. Indeed, inadequate sleep can lead to significant problems. It seems you are already in the early stages of such woes. That said, we now have to ask what adequate sleep is, even before we consider conditions that could lead to a reduction sleep time.
Before that answer, a more fundamental matter has to be dispensed with. What purpose does sleep serve in the life of an animal? What is the purpose of spending nearly one third of our lives in what seems like a waste of useful wakeful time? The simple answer is that we do not know the exact evolutionary explanation for this seeming time wastage.
The other point worth of note is that all animals sleep. That said, elephants and horses need only two hours of sleep, while some birds can have one side of the brain sleep while the other is busy with daily activities!
Babies on the other hand need up 18 hours of sleep per day, teenagers up to 10, and older people even less. Depending on your age therefore, six to nine hours may be adequate. An interesting if rather random fact may be useful to parents of teenagers.
This group of people have genuine problems starting the day and pushing them to get up and run off to school in the morning is difficult, not because the teenager is lazy (as many parents are led to believe) but because that is the way of nature. Teenagers by nature wake up rather slowly. As you can no doubt begin to appreciate, the subject of sleep is not for the sleepy in class!
Many years ago, and in a rather cruel scientific experiment, 10 mice were denied sleep for days on end. After some days, all of them died.
At post-mortem, no physical cause of death was found. They had died of exhaustion. In another experiment, an American youth stayed awake for 12 days before he collapsed.
This experiment is not recommended for obvious reasons but goes to show that at one point or another we all must nod off to sleep, even though we do not know exactly know what benefit comes our way. Ignorance does not come in the way of speculators who say for example that sleep promotes growth, restores some elements used up during wakefulness and cleans up neurotoxins in the brain. Big words little science. We know we must sleep but not exactly why.
Coming back to you and your sister, let us restate that you must get some help for the challenge with sleep, which might be due to all manner of problems. Some are obvious and almost laughable. A snoring partner is an important cause of sleep problems. Others are serious and are no laughing matter, such as severe depression that sometimes could lead to suicide.
Typically, a depressed person is able to fall off to sleep, but is awake by two or three am only for the sleep to come back at about six am when it is time to get up and go. This is called early morning waking and is a classical symptom of depression.
The person with an anxiety disorder on the other hand, is unable to fall off to sleep and spends much time ‘counting sheep’ with sleep remaining elusive. Other symptoms include a sense of fear and apprehension. The person who tries to solve his sleep problems with alcohol, wakes up with a headache, hangover and very tired because alcohol makes you unconscious without allowing you the benefits of natural sleep.
Older people have many sleep problems due to medical conditions. Some have joint pains, others have weak bladders and have to keep getting up to pass urine, while still others have serious problems such as the newly established ‘killer of the elderly’, simple old loneliness!
The subject of sleep as you can see is most complex and you are well advised to take your sister seriously and seek the services of an expert who hopefully will have had a good night’s sleep himself.