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Sleep debt is harmful — but are naps the answer?

sleep napping office sleep debt Your sleep debt damages your health more than you might think.
Credit: Wavebreak Media

As a new mom with a demanding career, Kristen Perullo was up every couple hours during the night with her baby. Her schedule of sleeping only for short periods, parenting and putting in full days at the office was taking its toll. But when she was struck with what she calls the “worst headache of her life” at work one day, she knew something was terribly wrong.

“I didn’t want to make a big deal about it,” Perullo says. “So I got up and went to the ER.”

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The news wasn’t good. Perullo’s immune system was so severely weakened by sleep deprivation that she had contracted viral meningitis.

Perullo is just one of the 70 million Americans who suffers from sleeping disorders. This deprivation, known as sleep debt, can cause damage that’s much more severe than needing a couple extra shots of espresso in your latte.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently declared Americans’ lack of sleep an epidemic; it’s so damaging that it can cause health problems including high blood pressure and diabetes. And while many people say that a power nap recharges them, a new study shows catching just a few Z’s may not help in the long run.

WELL_SleepDebt_Napwell1 The Napwell aims to wake you up more gently by naturally changing light.
Credit: Provided

The case for naps


The secret weapon of Northwestern University’s football team isn’t extra practice or strategy sessions. Last year, the Chicago Tribune reported that players wore censors that monitored the amount of sleep they got, as well as its quality level. By enacting mandatory nap time for his players, the coach saw improvements in performance.

And this practice isn’t just utilized by students. For major companies such as Cisco, the Huffington Post and Google, napping has become an accepted part of work life.

Justin Lee, a Ph.D. candidate in a joint Harvard-MIT program, is a frequent napper working to eliminate the groggy feeling you get when you’re awakened from a deep sleep, known as sleep inertia. “When you sleep, there are different phases,” he says. “It’s lighter, then deeper, then light again. … But if you wake up abruptly in a deep stage, you get sleep inertia.”

Lee is the inventor of Napwell, a sleep inertia mask that mimics a sunrise, waking you up gradually. “Naps can boost your productivity throughout the day,” says Lee, who hopes to start selling the Napwell this fall. “Even if you’re well rested, they’re really good for you.”

The case against naps


Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania found that lack of sleep kills brain cells. By studying sleep deprivation in mice, researchers discovered that prolonged wakefulness damages a type of neuron known as LCns, or locus ceruleus.

The study’s lead author, Dr. Sigrid Veasey, says catching a few hours of extra sleep may feel beneficial, but it’s still not enough to catch up on long-term sleep debt: “Our work suggests that in the long run, regular use of weekend catch-up sleep may not lead to a full recovery for the brain. These are changes that are either irreversible or take longer than a nap to remedy.”

The CDC offers the following tips for better sleep:


  • Try to maintain aschedule of going to bed and getting up at the same time each day — even on the weekends!

  • Your bedroom should be a quiet, dark and relaxing environment kept at a moderate temperature.

  • Keep your bedroom separate from the rest of your life. Avoid reading, watching TV or listening to music, and keep out any gadgets like cell phones or laptops.

  • Don’t eat large meals before going to bed.

 
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