Monday, March 20, 2006
Dying for a good night's sleep
I usually sleep no more than five or six hours a night. Between my jobs as a neurosurgeon, CNN medical correspondent, TIME contributor and new daddy, that's all I can afford. And frankly, it always seemed like enough.

Sure, I might get a little tired by mid-afternoon, and I know that experts recommend eight hours. But you can get a lot done in those extra two or three hours, especially when the rest of the world (not to mention the baby) is asleep. So when my CNN producers and I decided to put together a series of stories on sleep, it seemed a good opportunity to figure out just how much I really need.

For six months, we crisscrossed the country, interviewing sleep experts, getting tested in sleep labs and even flying a 747 simulator after being awake for 30 hours. I got my first clue that I might be more sleep deprived than I thought in a lab run by Robert Stickgold, a cognitive neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School.

I was wired with electrodes all over my head (including my eyelids) and two cameras recorded my every move. Everybody figured that with all the distractions, I would have trouble sleeping. As it happens, I was out almost immediately -- faster, according to the researchers, than anybody they had ever studied. It has given me new insight into my wife's complaint that I'm often asleep before my head hits the pillow.

I was sleep deprived. So what? Still confident that there was nothing wrong with my ability to function at full capacity, I flew to San Francisco, where NASA's Ames Research Center keeps a full-size virtual-motion simulator of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet. It's the next best thing to really flying. After a few hours of training and several takeoffs and landings, I had mastered the 747 -- or so I thought.

My assignment was to stay awake to the point of sleep deprivation and then try to fly again. After being awake for 30 hours, I felt more exhausted than I could ever remember. Then I was back in the cockpit. Remarkably, all those simple landing sequences were suddenly much harder to remember. Just keeping the nose of the plane level was a real challenge. Had I been flying a real 747, my passengers 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 those of someone with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08, which in many states is enough to be considered legally drunk. You should not drive, and you most certainly should not fly a plane, in that condition. Moreover, the effects add up. Sleeping only six hours a night for a week makes you as tired on the seventh night as if you had had no sleep at all.

Having seen firsthand what sleep deprivation can do, I'm now making a conscious effort to get more shut-eye. I still don't know why we sleep in the first place, but I have a much better feel for what happens if we don't.
Posted By Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN Medical Correspondent: 3:34 PM ET
  47 Comments
I read this entry after having been awake for 48 hours straight, and I admit it didn't make a lick of sense to me. But it did start to look prettier than the other articles.
Posted By Anonymous Finn Wake, Harrisburg, PA : 4:13 PM ET
I haven't had a good night's sleep in over 10 years and I have no idea why. I keep having dreams (never the same ones, and mostly not unpleasent either) and I wake up feeling tired. On the rare nights that I do get good sleep, I feel like Superman during the day! Despite this, I have finished a PhD in cell biology and completed a demanding residency, but I wonder what more I could have done? As it turns out depressed people dream more often, but I am absolutely sure I'm not depressed, in fact I am happier than I ever was. When I say this to people, they dont knw where I'm coming from, so I have always assumed there must be some weird wiring in my brain, but I wonder if there are other folks out there with similar issues.
Posted By Anonymous Subhojit Roy, Philadelphia, PA : 4:17 PM ET
I know several people who have sleep apnea. One friend discovered, in a sleep lab, that she wakes up about four times per MINUTE throughout the night. What a nightmare (so to speak)!
Posted By Anonymous Violet - NYC, NY : 4:26 PM ET
I normally sleep about four to five hours a night and never gave it much thought before. Now I just might have to start thinking about it. I am looking forward to your reports. Thanks for the amazing work!
Posted By Anonymous Vicki Pittsburgh, PA : 4:29 PM ET
I am a physician myself, I remember when i was a medical resident,and when i was on call,sometime i did not get any sleep for 36 hours,i knew how hard it was for me to drive back home from the hospital,and now i m an attending physician in florida.and sometime when i m awakened in the middle of night,i can not go back to sleep for several hours,and i just toss and turn until next morning,when i just get ready and go back to work,and that next day after several hours of sleep deprivation is,when i feel myself tired and grumpy.can someone help me,how to go back to sleep,after you are awakened by either nurses or ED physician,because i do not want be felt tired or to be called grumpy.
Sincerely, Dr.A.Khan.
Posted By Anonymous Dr. A. Khan, Davenport, FL : 4:29 PM ET
Well, I used to take sleep for granted when I was younger. However, after going through a period of extreme insomnia, including a stretch where I was awake for more than six straight days, I've learned to appreciate every minute of shuteye I can get.
Posted By Anonymous Jesse, Calgary, Alberta : 4:29 PM ET
Dr. Gupta,

Thank you for your recent visit to the University of Michigan and your informative article on sleep deprivation. As a college student, I am also no stranger to sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation often times indiscriminantly reduces performance over a broad variety of tasks. Sometimes, quick naps (no longer than 20 minutes) can really help me make it through the day. Sometimes, if you really need a larger boost, you can try drinking some caffeine and taking a nap immediately afterwards, which supposedly clears the body of adenosine.

Just my $0.02. Hope this helps.
-Farhan
Posted By Anonymous Farhan, Ann Arbor, MI : 4:30 PM ET
Why do we sleep in the first place? To give our wives a little down time from having to deal with us, of course. (:-))
Posted By Anonymous Chris Moller, Apex, NC : 4:32 PM ET
This is interesting. I can sleep 6 to 18 hours and be up only 4 or 5 and be sleepy again. I'm not in the best of health, due to being overweight, so I always assumed that was the reason. I awaken each morning as tired as I was when I went to bed. I wish there was a magical answer.
Posted By Anonymous K. Lawson, Ardmore, OK : 4:33 PM ET
Thank you Dr. Gupta for producing this story! As you know, paying attention to sleep is of major importance to our society. Next week is Sleep Awareness Week, sponsored by the National Sleep Foundation and many of us will be in Washington to learn about sleep and obesity and to encourage Americans to sleep more.

Joyce Walsleben, RN, Ph.D
Sleep Medicine Associates of NYC and NYU School of Medicine
Posted By Anonymous Joyce Walsleben. New York, NY : 4:34 PM ET
I am glad this article was posted. I usually skip and hour or 2 of sleep a night to work more or play more. I also have a trip planned to where, by the end of the drive, I will have been awake for over 20 hours. I will definately keep this in mind in the future.
Posted By Anonymous Todd, Minneapolis, MN : 4:36 PM ET
I have also experienced that "intoxication" feeling when I am sleep deprived. My speech is slurred and it takes me a lot longer to concentrate on my work. I recently picked up a book from the library called "Can't Sleep, Can't Stay Awake" and it gives ideas on what to do if you do tend to wake in the middle of the night. The best one is to never look at the time on your alarm clock.

It's still a very scary thought that people driving a car, flying a plane or even work in the Control Tower at the airport could be sleep deprived. The mistakes could be deadly.
Posted By Anonymous Nicki Ferguson, Calgary, Alberta Canada : 4:40 PM ET
I know I need more sleep. And what about recurrent dreams? Dreams I've had since I was a child.
Posted By Anonymous Missy, Fairfield, CT : 4:41 PM ET
I am on about 4.5 hours of broken sleep a night. The last time i had 5 hrs of straight solid sleep has been years. My working hours are 130pm until 1230am. Midnight is my 5:00pm so my body doesnt shut down until 3 or 4am. but in order for me to have a full day and do everything i need to do, im up early regardless of sleep. I can't waste my day away to sleep when i have 100 things to do. I put myself through school 2.5 yrs ago and was on about 2 hours of sleep [if none] a night. I'd be so over tired that I coudn't fall asleep [which is the case now still] I get sick about every month due to my circle of non sleep and non rest and being awake for so long. My hour drive to work is when my body wants to sleep. I do everything in my power to move around and figit my hands; I can literally fall asleep at the wheel as if i've been drugged. Once I get to work, out of the car, walk into the office, im awake again. This happens quite often and I have no idea why it's happening. I sure hope all of this goes away soon because it has aged me a bit and it's a little embarrassing.
Posted By Anonymous Glenn Roberts; Fort Lauderdale, FL : 4:42 PM ET
Thanks for this report Sanjay.In this fast paced, high pressure world we all need a little "wake-up call" about the importance of sleep.I guess more of us should probably be Tivo-ing AC360 instead of staying up so late to watch it!
Posted By Anonymous Jennifer, Durham NC : 4:42 PM ET
I have struggled with insomnia for my whole life. As a post menopausal female, I can say that insomnia seems to get worse adding hot flashes to the mix of things to inhibit sleep. I finally begged my doctor for some sleep medicine. I take 1/2 of a 5mg. Ambien and that really helps until I watch the news and start worrying about global warming.
Posted By Anonymous Sandy Prince Fayetteville,AR : 4:43 PM ET
Are you sure you didn't fall asleep and dream that you had flown in the 747 simlulator?
Posted By Anonymous Dennis Toeppen, Champaign, IL : 4:49 PM ET
I was diagnosed with severe sleep apnea about 5 weeks ago. I was unable to actually sleep deeply because I was having difficulty breathing up to 90 times every hour. I�ve been on treatment with a Constant Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine for a little over a month. I did not realize how poorly I was sleeping. The difference, pun intended, is night and day!
Posted By Anonymous Jim Eads, Miami, Florida : 4:51 PM ET
A laudable reiteration of a decades-old medical truth. (Sorry...it's really not "news".) But that quip, "I was sleep deprived. So what?" pretty much sums up our arrogant attitudes: The experts cannot possibly be right. Drunk drivers are regularly returned to the street, sleepless truckers tip over on our freeways, politicians have even tried to legislate the value of pi -- but somehow we all know better and ignore the facts. What about another oft-proven adage, once so well stated: "Pride goeth before a fall"? Dr. Gupta is instructing us about much more than sleep-deprivation.
Posted By Anonymous David Wigtil, Germantown, Maryland : 4:53 PM ET
Please,
Get some zzzzzzzzzzzs!
Bert
Bremen Ky
Posted By Anonymous Bert Piper-Bremen,Ky. : 4:53 PM ET
I've had insomnia for 5 years and life gets pretty rough when you haven't had much sleep. In the beginning, when it was at it's worst, I actually had to call in sick because I was too tired to drive much less sit at a computer typing all day. But drugs like Lunesta have made my life easier. zzzzzzzzzz
Posted By Anonymous Kristina, New Britain, CT : 4:55 PM ET
If everyone in the world got all the sleep they needed every night, just think how less productive this world would be. I suppose it takes a balance--just the right amount of sleep for the best health and most efficient productivity.
Posted By Anonymous Stacey W., Los Angeles, CA : 4:56 PM ET
Dr. Gupta,

I am a sleep specialist practicing in Philadelphia, PA. Everyday I explain to my patients the deleterious effects of even partial sleep deprivation. Why we sleep is still a source of debate, but the truth is every part of our physical and mental health is effected by sleep deprivation. In the fast paced world of today I tell my patients not to ignore 1/3 of their lives which is the percentage we tell them should be devoted to sleep. To ignore this part of your life impacts the rest of it in a negative way.
Posted By Anonymous Fred, Philadelphia, PA : 4:57 PM ET
I think these findings have to be adjusted for age. I am 62, retired, and doing well financially and with my health, yet seldom can I sleep for more than 6 hours a night. I am almost always up before 6 am. I have always felt I was at my best early in the morning.

P.S. I do admit to taking a nap in the afternoon on many days - maybe this is my compensation.
Posted By Anonymous R. Ray, Hilton Head Island, SC : 5:01 PM ET
Sometimes I cannot make myself go back to sleep . . . so I go ahead and get up, knowing that the I'll catch up the next night or couple of nights. When I was younger I could stay awake for 48 hours, that was my limit; now, at 38, 24 hours is my limit . . . and then I will get catch a cold. It might be psychosomatic, regardless, I cannot control it. Our bodies usually know what they can handle. I think if we listen closer, we would be healthier in general.
Posted By Anonymous Lesle, Houston, Texas : 5:04 PM ET
I had not slept well in years due to a vicious cycle of sleeplessness causing pain and pain causing more sleeplessness. To the casual observer, I appeared healthy, but my short-term memory was non-existent, and doing anything took several times longer than usual. But I appeared healthy, so Disability evaluators concluded that I had to be faking the impaired mental function, and doctors refused to order a sleep study that might have proven the truth of my claim that I slept about 2 hours a night. Finally, I found a natural remedy that rebalanced my biochemistry so that I could sleep, and, for the first time since late 1999, I'm able to make advance plans and be reasonably certain that I can follow through on them.
Posted By Anonymous K Campbell, Sacramento CA : 5:05 PM ET
I'm a college student working towards degrees in chemistry and engineering, and find myself in situations where I get little sleep (like most other college students i'd assume). However, one of my priorities is to maintain good physical health, and I've discovered that it's impossible to hit the gym or elliptical machine each day without getting a full nights sleep; if I don't, my mind just doesn't function properly.
Posted By Anonymous Enoch Dames, Blacksburg, VA : 5:13 PM ET
I'm a college student and I'll be the first to admit I get nowhere near the recommended sleep amount each night. On a good night, I might get 7 hours of sleep, but 8 hours? Close to never. Then again this sort of article isn't too suprising; how deprived we are in America. Look at younger kids: they have to wake up at sometimes 6 every morning to get ready for Middle or High School. We learn to get along without much sleep, in fact, I'd say we encourage it. Whoever goes to bed consistently before 10 or 11 anymore? In general, I appreciated this article, but wasn't suprised at its content. We know we don't sleep. We almost pride ourselves on it even.
Posted By Anonymous Andrew, Geneseo NY : 5:17 PM ET
That is a very useful coverage. As a woman, I always find that my skin is much better when I have enough sleep that I do believe in 'beauty sleep'! I did not realize that "sleep debt" does more than needing "more make up" to cover up the flaws. Love your report!
Posted By Anonymous Monique, Magnolia, TX : 5:20 PM ET
I'm definitely sleep deprived,I got only 4 hours of sleep last night and all I can think of is crawling back into bed right now!
Posted By Anonymous Marie, Los Angeles, CA : 5:22 PM ET
I used ot have lack of sleep and recently had a sleep test. Sleep Apnea, wss part of the issue. Some nasal surgery, and now I sleep very well. It sharpens memory, stamina level is strong, and a good 8 hours of solid sleep. Blood pressure has hit normal from high, and weight loss also is noticed. The net result is sleep makes your system function better...pretty impressive. Talk to your doctor about it...
Posted By Anonymous Terry W Bass. Helena, MT : 5:26 PM ET
Last year I was diagnosed with an extreme case of Sleep Apnea. I could no longer drive, I'd fall asleep at work and even in conversation. My tests indicated that I actually would turn blue at night due to lack of oxygen. The sever symptoms kind of crept up on me but the Doc believes I've had a mild case most of my adult (weight and allergies). Because of the way this crept up on me so slowly I can understand how someone can have a sleep disorder fall into the belief that it is something they just have to deal with. Personnally I'd recommend that, if you're tired all day or at least part of the day, SEEK MEDICAL HELP NOW. Something as mundane as regularly falling asleep while watching movies or doing simple tasks are enough to be concerned. Since getting treatment my life has in large measure returned. But I must sleep at least 6 hours a night with a CPAP (Continueous Positive Air Preasure) Machine.

What I don't understand is how Jay Leno can say he gets by on only 3 or 4 hours of sleep at night.
Posted By Anonymous Brett Stone, Stuttgart Germany : 5:29 PM ET
"It's still a very scary thought that people driving a car, flying a plane or even work in the Control Tower at the airport could be sleep deprived. The mistakes could be deadly."

What about a neurosurgeon?
Posted By Anonymous Linda, Davenport, IA : 5:30 PM ET
I've always felt empathy for people with insomnia since I've never experienced it. I sleep 8 hrs every night (2:00-10:00 am); do paperwork and telephone work in the afternoon; and see clients (I'm a psychotherapist)for about 7 hours in the late afternoon and evening. I'm 54 yr old female who looks 10 yrs younger (so I'm always told). I love sleep, and feel blessed to be able to have enough of it.
Posted By Anonymous Theresa, Brooklyn, NY : 5:33 PM ET
I find this really interesting to read about and I hope you explore some alternatives to the "normal" sleep schedule. I have worked third/graveyard shift for seven years and anytime I see people talking about sleep and recommended sleep, I rarely see anything about those of us who don't sleep at night.
Posted By Anonymous Kristi, Charleston, IL : 9:05 AM ET
I go to bed every night at 10 or 10:30. I used to wake up about 3 - 5 times a night and have to use the bathroom before I could go back to sleep. I probably have sleep apnea but I have not been diagnosed. I am overweight but healthy and I am told that I can snore (really good!). I recently started drinking aloe vera juice to help releive heartburn/acid reflux and it worked! I am also sleeping so much better and am no longer dragging during the day and I am told that I am not snoring as bad (good!). I wake up feeling so much better and more alert and it feels so good to not be yawning and dragging my feet all day long!
Posted By Anonymous Joni, Bemidji, MN : 9:07 AM ET
I think that sleep deprivation is a relative thing. Different requirements for different people; but, there are limits to the absolute shortest length of your sleep time. Naps can supplement this, and physical illnesses and apnea need to be treated for someone to reach their optimal sleep/wake cycles.

I'm in the military, a physician, have spent time in garrison and deployed. In training situations (medical and military) I have been pushed to the limits. In combat 3-4 hours a night for the soldier on the line is a desired minimum time for sleep. The need is a little more for those leaders making the major decisions that would affect the lives of those in their charge.
Posted By Anonymous Mike, San Antonio, TX : 9:07 AM ET
Wow, very interesting stuff, I have recently increased the amount of sleep I get from 6 hours a night to 6.5 to 7, and I try to get in at least 8 hours on the weekends, needless to say it has made a difference in how I feel.
Posted By Anonymous David White, Lakewood, NJ : 9:11 AM ET
I enjoyed the article but unlike most of the bloggers, I get between 8 1/2 and 9 1/2 hours sleep each night. Regularly in bed by 10PM and up between 7 and 7:30. I know the amount of sleep I get helps me to look and feel younger, I am more productive at work than my younger counterparts, and can easily pull 12 hour work days without effort.
Posted By Anonymous Terry, Saint John, NB. Canada : 9:49 AM ET
Dr. Gupta,

How can you sleep at all with all the light your incredibly bleached teeth give off?
Posted By Anonymous Wiley Billy Squierville,NC : 10:13 AM ET
I usually get 8 hours of sleep each night and on occasion 9 or 10 hours. I enjoy sleeping as much or even more than others enjoy being awake. It is an awesome part of life. I wake up refreshed and ready to go in the morning. Life is a balance, disturb that balance and it will catch up to you sooner or later.
Posted By Anonymous Adrian, Plymouth, MI : 10:15 AM ET
As a grad student who the past two nights resorted to caffeinated JOLT gum to supplement coffee drinking and chocolate covered espresso beans, i would say that there are a lot of expectations placed on young people to work long hours in college, and i can image in many other fields as well. going for a coffee break a 1am last night at a relatively small school i saw at least 20 other students doing the same thing. i regularly see people who are unable to press the correct elevator buttons in the morning. lately, 9am-4am. not much better on the weekends... and four more years to go.
Posted By Anonymous lee, cambridge MA : 10:21 AM ET
It was an eyeopener of sorts...
Trying to juggle my home, a full time job, higher studies and a toddler leaves me with very little time to sleep...and yes I feel tired all the time...
But I have seen 6 hours of"quality sleep" is better than 9 hours of disturbed sleep...
Thank u again Sanjay...
Posted By Anonymous Nandini,Fairfa,VA : 10:46 AM ET
I suppose a surgeon's lack of sleep could help to help explain why my mom had to have neck surgery twice since the first time the doctor messed up. Doctors are poking around one of the most complex machines. Next time I have surgery I will have the doctor sign a form saying he/she has had adequate rest. Just a thought....
Posted By Anonymous robb, Portland, OR : 12:37 PM ET
I wish more people could be shown what you discovered. I tell people I need 8 hours a night and they look at me like I'm crazy. What's sad is that sleep deprivation has now filtered down to children. It's amazing to me how many parents let their kids stay up late at night and then expect them up early the next morning for school. This isn't just about interns, college students or truckers any more; it's about the health of our children.
Posted By Anonymous Phil, Kansas City, MO : 2:02 PM ET
I think at one point in my life I used to sleep, but no longer. It's called parenting. My three children range in ages from 25 to 8 years old and I haven't a full night's sleep in 25 years. If the kids are all gone, I still wake up several times each night because I "think" I may hear them. I've taken medications, it doesn't work. It's a bad habit I've acquired since first becoming a mother 25 years ago and thinking I had to do everything.

Most people are sleep deprived. We don't take the time for proper rest. We're to busy tending to life. My daily routine starts at 5AM (7 days a week) to walk the two dogs. Then Monday through Friday, we leave the house by 6AM to drive 65 miles one way to work/school for my youngest (who sleeps the entire trip in!). Then it's work until 5PM and drive home those 65 miles again. Dinner, homework, bath, read, watch tv, put child to bed, clean up dishes, wash a load of clothes, pick up house and it's then 10PM and time to catch the last half of AC360! Six hours of sleep if I'm lucky.

I'm sure that most people live with this same schedule. If you can find a way for me to get another 2 hours of sleep each night I'll be one happy Mommmy!
Posted By Anonymous Karen, Houston, TX : 2:05 PM ET
I am a 20 year old college student. I've been dealing with insomnia ever since I can remember. Even as a young child, getting to sleep was a chore. It was often hours before I would fall asleep, and many of those hours my poor mom spent rubbing my back. Soon enough, I got older and sleeping just got worse. By the time I hit high school my sleeping was something to be studied. I'd lie in bed for at least two hours, then wake up multiple times during the night. Finally, by my senior year, I'd go weeks with less than 20 hours of actual sleep. I was given every medication, but nothing could get me to sleep, and to stay asleep (even multiple pills). Lets just say, I got to catch up on my movies. Now, it college, my ability to function (at what I think is pretty normal levels) is a blessing (though I'm sure it's doing more harm than good.) I'm currently running on 3 hours of sleep in the last 30-something hours. Starbucks has a customer for life in this lifetime insomniac.
Posted By Anonymous Liz, Boston, MA : 3:30 PM ET
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