Remember, we’ve agreed to put that orthodoxy on hold, keep our minds open, and question the conventional wisdom. And let me give you an interesting way to do that.
I would like you all to imagine that you’re in the hospital. You are moments away from urgent, life-saving surgery. Justifiably, you are terrified. Now your surgeon is reputed to be one of the best in the world. And he comes over to your bed to answer any last questions, and have you sign consent forms.
Now while you’re looking over the consent forms, he reaches into his white coat and he pulls out a shot glass and a bottle of whiskey. And then he pours a shot; tosses it back.
Now, seeing this shocked look on your face that you all have, he immediately explains, “Don’t worry; I only have one shot every two hours. And for a man my size, that will never result in a blood alcohol level above 0.05 which is well below the legal limit for intoxication.”
So what do you say? “Okay, you’re the doc; let’s get this show on the road.” Right? Of course not. We would never accept that rationale. Nor would we accept it from a pilot, or a policeman, or any other professional. Yet, as a society, we seem perfectly willing to accept sleep deprivation even though research has repeatedly shown that being awake for 18 hours results in a performance on par with a blood alcohol level of 0.05, the same as our hypothetical surgeon.
Worse yet, pulling an all-nighter results in a performance on par with a 0.08 to 0.1. But it’s not just the heroic all-nighters, right? It’s the insidious, night after night of losing one hour here, two hours there, that’s destroying our health.
And let me tell you a story about a guy who learned this the hard way. When I met him, he was in college full-time. He was working. He was married. He had kids. And he was trying to get into graduate school. And he tried to make all this work by skimping on sleep. And he continued that way throughout graduate school.
Well, while in graduate school, for the first time in his life, he became fat. And he developed anxiety, and depression, hypertension, and was even diagnosed with ADD. And even though he was working with a very experienced physician, sleep deprivation was never discussed.
Now some of you may have guessed, this fat, anxious, depressed, over-stressed train wreck, was me, during medical school. And unfortunately, it would be many years before I suspected sleep as being the root of my problem. But once I suspected it, I had to test it. And so I made some sacrifices to my schedule, and I slept more. And here’s the surprising part; I actually got more done, and I had fun doing it. But more importantly, I’m no longer fat, or anxious, or depressed, or hypertensive, and I no longer even have ADD.
Now, was this an easy change for me to make? Of course not. It required me to challenge years of social programming that had taught me to sleep less in order to achieve more. In short, it required me to take a leap of faith.
Now, as a physician, I’ve worked with hundreds of SEALS with similar problems. And this surprises most people. I mean, come on, these are Navy SEALs. These are the toughest guys alive. Surely, they are not suffering from lack of sleep. And if you know much about SEAL training, you may already know that we go for an entire week without sleep. So you would think we should have selected out for anyone who couldn’t handle a little sleep deprivation, right?
But I see young, healthy, fit, athletic-looking Navy SEALs all the time, with the blood chemistry of fat, broken, old men, because even Navy SEALs break down after years of poor sleep. We know that sleep deprivation has a profound effect on all of us. Besides the blood alcohol comparison I’ve already given, we know that sleep-restricting young, healthy, athletic college students for just four days results in blood glucose and insulin levels consistent with obesity and diabetes.
We know that chronic sleep deprivation increases our risk for almost every disease: cancer, heart attacks, strokes, depression, obesity, diabetes. It increases our risk for accidents, and even increases our risk for suicide. And the financial cost to the business sector is estimated at being over $200 billion per year just in absenteeism and reduced productivity.
But remember problem number two? We don’t want to hear this. We don’t believe that we are being personally affected. We feel fine. Maybe a little tired, but fine.
But many cardiac patients feel fine too — right up until that first heart attack. Sleep deprivation is the same kind of silent killer. In fact, the most unnerving finding is that when we do research and we sleep restrict people for only three to four days, they report feeling fine. The problem is, they’re not fine. It’s like the guy in the bar who thinks he’s fine after three to four drinks. Our self-awareness is equally impaired with sleep deprivation.