We all know the feeling: The alarm rings, and all you want to do is give it the middle finger before smashing it against the wall and going back to sleep.

You are groggy and unfocused while you fumble through your morning, and you end up barely remembering your commute to work (you know, the one which goes past the gym which you swore would be a part of your morning routine, no matter what?).

And of course, this is just how modern day life is, what with our busy schedules and such; and getting by on 4-5 hours of sleep a night, despite how crummy we feel or how tired is just part of it.

But what difference does it make–after all, we still make it to work and get things done, right? And can’t we just drink more coffee and catch up on sleep on the weekend?

Well, let’s take a look and see about that!

How Much Sleep We Need, Vs How Much Sleep We Actually Get

Let’s start with how things were prior to the invention of electric light–or even candle light, for that matter.

Our ancestors once had only natural light, which of course was provided by the sun. What this meant was that, whether they liked it or not, bedtime was dictated by the setting of the sun.

However, sleep was not something which was taken care of in one eight-plus hour time block. Rather, people usually slept in four-hour blocks with a period of around one hour’s wakefulness in between, which, according to Virginia Tech University sleep historian Roger Ekirch is our “natural” sleep pattern.

This is referred to as “first sleep” or “deep sleep,” followed by “second sleep” or “morning sleep,” and in between most would pray, talk with spouses or others in the sleeping chamber, or merely lay there until it was time for the final four-hour “leg” of sleep.

Does the waking in the middle of the night sound familiar?

Likely it does, although now we refer to this waking in the middle of the night as “insomnia,” and it is largely viewed as sleep disruption, rather than a regular sleep cycle which we are naturally prone to.

Compound this with the invention of electricity, television and it’s late night allure, and our overall need to burn the midnight oil rather than getting to bed on time, and what we have is not enough sleep!

So let’s say you are in need of eight hours of sleep, which is right around what most average adults require. No problem, you simply go to bed by midnight in order to be up at eight AM, correct?

Well, maybe, if you are one of the few who does not experience the circadian rhythms of natural human sleep.

However, if you are like most of us and experience being awake for at least an hour in the middle, you are now losing an hour’s sleep, despite hitting the hay with ample time to get the rest you feel you need.

Now let’s take it a step further, and factor in that last episode of “Law and Order” you just had to watch–you know, the one which ended at one AM? Sure, you only taxed yourself one hour of sleep, but it was worth it since you now have something to talk about around the water cooler tomorrow.

But, even though it was “only” one hour, there is also that pesky waking episode in the middle of the night, so really, it is two hours you are missing.

Even worse, you are also setting yourself up for the alarm going off in the middle of your final sleep cycle, which has a lot to do with that crappy, irritable feeling you so often bring with you on your way out the door in the morning.

The Consequences

So, no problem, there is always the weekend to catch up on sleep, and most of your fellow employees can understand a little grumpiness in the morning since they are likely in the same boat as you.

But hold on there, it may not be quite that easy!

You see, along with the missed hours of sleep may also be some health issues which go along with too little sleep, such as:

  • Depleted immune system.
  • Increased risk of chronic illness.
  • Respiratory problems.
  • Weight gain.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Hypertension.
  • Increased Cortisol production.

And no, just sleeping in on the weekend will not reset the damage, since the rejuvenating effects of sleep need consistency in order to be fully functional.

There are also the mental and safety effects of not getting enough sleep, such as:

  • Increased accident proneness.
  • Depression.
  • Mood swings and short temper.
  • Mental exhaustion.

By the way, did you know that drowsy driving can be at least as bad as drunk driving, and is to blame for around 17% of fatal traffic accidents?

Yikes, think about that before getting behind the wheel on the morning after a binge watching session!

What Can be Done?

Unfortunately, being healthy takes discipline, and getting enough sleep is part of being healthy.

And no, extra caffeine or even making it to the gym rather than passing it in the morning are not the answers.

In fact, lack of sleep can make you less prone to performance gains in the gym, while simultaneously making you more injury prone. And, while simply consuming more caffeine can increase your alertness, it can also make you even crankier and less focused than simply sleeping an adequate amount, not to mention other problems associated with too much caffeine (nothing like that shaky, nervous feeling and the sweaty palms and pits which go along with it!).

However, even though you have a busy lifestyle and also need time to relax and be entertained, you can:

  • Work on getting to bed at a consistent time every night–Sure, this may seem like you’re missing out on things, but consider investing in  a Tivo or a similar recording device. That way, rather than using your weekends to catch up on sleep, you can reverse it and use them to catch up on viewing your favorite programs, etc. Also, if you are working on a project, it is likely you are slowing yourself down by refusing to give in and hit the hay rather than revisiting it from a fresh standpoint in the morning–don’t try to be a hero, and you will likely accomplish more high-quality work!
  • Factor in that it is likely that you will be awake for an hour or so in the middle of the night–Yes, this is a natural part of sleeping, and not something you can (or even should) avoid through the latest miracle pills, meditations, etc. Instead, embrace it! Use the time to think through problems or ideas you have, although don’t go so far as to turn on lights, computer or the television, as this will simply add to your time awake, along with all of the ill effects of not enough rest.
  • Naps can also help in a pinch, and are far more beneficial than extra coffee breaks–Even if you do have to burn the midnight oil and are simply too busy to accommodate a full night’s sleep schedule, research has shown that sneaking in a cat nap–be it at your desk, in your car or wherever you are able to get away with it–will aid in your focus, mental clarity, creativity and overall health far more than just being extra-wired, cranky and  jittery from loads of caffeine. Plus, when it is time to lay down to sleep at night, the effects of all those double-espresso-mocha-lattes won’t have you staring at the ceiling for hours, rather than drifting off to one of the best places we know of–Slumberland!

Conclusion

We all need our sleep, despite the common perception that we can always catch up on it at a later time with no ill effects, which again, we cannot.

Whether you have a busy life or not, there are ways to improve your health through the benefit of enough sleep, including turning off devices and late night television, reducing your caffeine intake, or simply dropping everything and knowing it will be there for you to when you are fresh in the morning (hint–you’ll probably also do a better job this way).

Getting to bed at a reasonable hour and understanding that it is natural for you to wake for a period of time in the middle of the night are keys to getting adequate rest, and will leave you happier, healthier, and perhaps even more likeable than when you are tired, irritable and too foggy to remember the names of people you meet.

So next time you just can’t seem to finish that big project and are looking at an all-nighter, consider dropping everything, going to bed, and getting the project done faster and doing a better job on it in the morning.

Your boss will probably be impressed!