“Don’t Drink and Drive!” These words are ingrained into the youth of America even before they understand the concept of alcohol. There aren’t, however, elementary school classes across the country repeating, “Don’t Drive Drowsy!” According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, exhaustion figures into more than 100,000 car crashes each year, which is equivalent to one crash every five minutes. This begs the question, why is this information so private? And more importantly, why are Americans so tired that they are driving cars off the road?
There is a vicious circle in society’s understanding of the dangers due to lack of sleep. Currently there is very little information being shared about sleep, because it is seen as what we do when we aren’t doing anything. People don’t realize that lack of sleep is a serious health risk, but without people listening to the information about sleep, then people won’t understand why they should be concerned. Conventional society has twisted the Latin mantra “Carpe Diem” or “Seize the Day” into a much more unhealthy idea that you must live today and sleep tomorrow. There were even attempts to perpetuate this false ideology in the media through a Bud Light commercial that had the tagline “Sleep When You’re Dead.” Luckily this was taken off the air before it could continue to distort societies perception after complaints by sleep doctors, but these were only a few people who were speaking with reasoning that society as a whole should know. I must be clear: SLEEP is an ESSENTIAL part of LIFE.
According to James Maas, a psychology professor at Cornell University, the average person needs around nine to nine and half hours a night in order to achieve their full potential by being fully alert all day. More scientifically, sleep need, as defined by Dr. William Dement, the world’s leading expert on sleep, is the specific nightly amount of sleep, which results in a level of daytime alertness that neither increases nor decreases. This definition explains that not meeting one’s sleep need while being fully functional is not possible, because sleep need is determined by they amount of sleep one needs to maximize productivity and alertness.
Now you might claim to be the exception to this rule, functioning perfectly well on 5 hours of sleep a night. You are, however, more likely in great danger of continually depriving your body of the sleep it so desperately needs. If you find yourself “sleeping in” on weekends in order to get extra sleep to recover from the previous week, then you are accumulating what is called a sleep debt. Dr. Dement defines this as the result of recurrent sleep deprivation, which occurs over time when an individual doesn’t experience a sufficient amount of restorative daily sleep. Over the weekend the extra sleep you get is not a good sign, but actually shows that your body is trying to payoff this debt.
If a sleep debt isn’t paid off there are many more consequences other than just nodding off every once and a while. In an experiment carried out by Dr. Thomas Wehr at the National Institutes of Heath, scientists determined that a large sleep debt impairs our mood, our sense of well-being, our energy, and our intellectual function. Thus while looking at these results it is clear that there is more satisfaction from life when getting the necessary amount of sleep every night. Remember though that your awareness of the most obvious sign of a mounting sleep debt, the inability to remain alert all day, can be the most important moment of your life. If you don’t and fall asleep at the wheel, I guarantee it will be if you survive.