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To sleep, perchance to live

Lack of shut-eye could be a hazard to your health

By Dr. Sanjay Gupta
CNN

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Dr. Sanjay Gupta tries to unlock the mysteries of sleep.

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(CNN) -- For too many of us, sleep is something to do when we're not doing something else.

As a new father with two demanding jobs, there always seems to be something else.

Before I started working on this special, I slept five or six hours a night and didn't think much about it. This, it turns out, is not a good idea.

The more scientists learn about sleep, the more they realize how crucial it is to learning, memory, physical performance and health. If you are chronically sleep deprived, studies show you raise your risk of obesity, heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

So, when my producers and I decided to put together a one-hour special on sleep -- and our general lack thereof -- it seemed a good chance to figure out how much sleep I really need.

I got my first clue that I may be more sleep deprived than I thought at a Boston, Massachusetts, laboratory run by Robert Stickgold, a cognitive neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School.

Stickgold is trying to determine how reality shapes the narratives of our dreams.

Before arriving at his lab that night, I had spent several 45-minute sessions there playing a skiing video game that requires you to stand and twist your body to maneuver through the slalom gates.

Overnight, a computer would wake me up when I entered the first stages of sleep, and I would report my dreams.

With two cameras rolling and electrodes all over my head (including my eyelids), I fell asleep almost immediately -- faster, according to the researchers, than anybody they'd ever studied.

The video game was fun, but I didn't dream about skiing as most test subjects do. For some reason, I dreamed about wheat fields, which puzzled both Stickgold and me.

Though I didn't unlock the secrets of my dreams, I did learn that I was sleep deprived.

With that knowledge, I flew to San Francisco, California, where NASA's Ames Research Center keeps a simulator of a Boeing 747 cockpit.

Sitting in the full-size cockpit, the simulator has the look, feel and sound of the real thing.

Take off and the simulator tilts back as if you were really flying. After a few hours of training and several take offs and landings, I had mastered the 747 -- or so I thought.

My assignment was to stay awake to the point of sleep deprivation -- 24 hours straight -- and then try to fly again.

I was back in the cockpit at 2 a.m., California time, and those seemingly simple landing sequences were suddenly much harder to remember.

Just keeping the nose of the plane level proved to be a real challenge.

Had I been flying a real 747, my passengers might not have died, but they would have had a very bumpy ride.

My experience, I learned, is hardly unique.

If you have been up for more than 20 hours, your reflexes are roughly comparable to someone with a blood alcohol level of .08 -- which in many states is enough to be considered legally drunk.

You should not drive -- and you most certainly should not be flying a plane -- in that condition.

Moreover, the effects add up. Sleeping only six hours a night for a week will make you as tired on that seventh night as if you'd had no sleep at all, according to David F. Dinges, chief of the Division of Sleep and Chronobiology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Having seen first hand what sleep deprivation can do, I'm making a conscious effort to get more shut-eye. I now know I'm probably like the vast majority of people, who need 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night.

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