Sleep often takes a backseat to our busy schedules. Who hasn’t pulled an all-nighter to meet a deadline or sacrifice a few hours of shut-eye to keep up with social activities? Perhaps you only slept for five hours last night. Is it a big deal? Should you be concerned?
Sleep is not just a passive state, but an essential physiological process, playing a vital role in our overall health and cognitive functioning. Various stages of sleep serve different restorative functions, and the absence or truncation of these stages can lead to detrimental effects.
When we talk about the need for 7–9 hours of sleep, it’s not arbitrary. This number is backed by a wealth of scientific evidence indicating the average adult needs this much sleep for optimal performance and health. Cutting down to five hours, even for a single night, can significantly impact cognitive abilities and bodily functions.
You may feel reasonably functional, but studies have shown there is a substantial impairment in cognitive performance and reaction times, even if subjectively you may feel “OK”. People are notoriously bad at recognising their own sleep deficits. A single night of reduced sleep can affect your memory, attention, creativity, and decision-making skills. Furthermore, it can impact your mood, making you irritable, anxious, or depressed.
A good example of this is driving after insufficient sleep. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reported that drivers who sleep only 5–6 hours in a 24-hour period are twice as likely to crash as those who get seven hours of sleep or more.
But what about the long-term effects? Some people may argue that they are “short sleepers” and can function on less sleep. While a small fraction of the population genetically needs less sleep, for most of us, consistently sleeping five hours a night can lead to chronic sleep deprivation. This can increase the risk of health issues such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even some types of cancer.
Aside from that, hronic sleep deprivation has a cumulative effect on performance. Over time, less sleep can lead to a noticeable deficit in cognitive functions. It can also weaken the immune system, making you more prone to infections. Lastly, lack of adequate sleep has been linked to mental health issues like depression and anxiety disorders.
Notably, the concern about sleep is not only about the quantity but also the quality. Ensuring you progress through all stages of sleep, especially the restorative deep and REM sleep, is crucial. If your five hours of sleep is light and disrupted, the effects mentioned can be amplified.
What does this mean for those who got just five hours last night? Should you panic? Not at all. One night of reduced sleep won’t lead to drastic health effects. However, it is a wake-up call to assess your sleep hygiene. If short nights are a rarity, you’re likely fine. But if they’re the norm, it may be time to reconsider your sleep habits.
Sleep is not a luxury, but a necessity. That five hours of sleep you got last night might not seem like a big deal, but if it becomes a habit, it could have significant implications for your health and performance. It’s essential to prioritise sleep and establish good sleep hygiene habits for long-term health and well-being. After all, the phrase “sleep like a baby” didn’t come from nowhere. It’s a subtle reminder that sleep is as critical as diet and exercise in maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
Quincy R. Fairbanks is an accomplished health journalist and sleep enthusiast, dedicated to unraveling the science behind our nightly slumber. When not writing, Quincy can be found trekking in national parks or brewing the perfect cup of coffee.