Why We Sleep – #Lack of Sleep (1)

A man sitting and sleeping with the had resting on his hand
Photo by KoolShooters on Pexels.com

I just happen to be fine with six hours of sleep! …is what you might think or what you might have heard people tell you. In fact, many people believe they belong to a very small percentage of people who easily cope with even less than six hours of sleep. However, this is actually very unlikely since the number of those short sleepers, also known as the sleepless elite, is smaller than one percent of the population.

Nonetheless, among those who do belong to the sleepless elite, their secret seems to be a genetic condition that allows them to be perfectly fine with five to six hours of sleep (or less). In fact, even if those short sleepers had the chance to sleep longer, they would still wake up after just a short amount of sleep being rested and energised for the new day.

Would you have known?
Different sources claim that Donald Trump, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama and Elon Musk are short sleepers (among others). Apparently, Margaret Thatcher also used to only sleep four to five hours per night, which is why the gene that is responsible for this ability is also called the Thatcher gene.

Hence, if you do not belong to the sleepless elite, but still don’t get more than about six hours of sleep every night, you are likely to suffer from a lack of sleep. If you knew about the consequences of sleep deprivation, you would probably want to change your sleeping behaviour. To convince you, let me summarise a few consequences that a lack of sleep might bring about…

Emotional irrationality

Studies have shown that by giving the same (neutral to negative) input to a group of sleep-deprived and a group of non sleep-deprived people, great differences between those two groups were observed. While the sleep-deprived participants reacted with strong emotions such as anger, rage or the tendency to show a fight-or-flight response, the participants who were not sleep-deprived showed more controlled and modest reactions. Furthermore, those studies revealed that a lack of sleep can lead to

pendulum-like swings in the mood and emotions of our participants. In a flash, sleep-deprived subjects would go from irritable and antsy to punch-drunk giddy, only to then swing right back to a state of vicious negativity. They were traversing enormous emotional distances, from negative to neutral to positive, and all the way back again, within a remarkably short period of time.

Matthew Walker, Why We Sleep

I guess we could summarise this phenomenon by saying that a constant lack of sleep drives your emotions upside down-crazy – and back!


Linked to emotional irrationality is the (emotional) extremity can be caused by a loss of sleep. Going back and forth between extremely positive and negative emotions bears great danger:

Extremely negative emotions can cause depression, a sense of worthlessness and the questioning of life’s value. Especially among adolescents, studies have identified a connection between a lack of sleep and „suicidal thoughts, suicidal attempts and, tragically, suicidal completion.“ Furthermore, among children, sleep deprivation has „been linked to aggression, bullying and behavioral problems.“

You might think extremely positive emotions might also have extremely positive consequences. However, this is not the case! In fact, consequences of extremely positive emotions caused by a lack of sleep can be „sensation-seeking, risk-taking, and addiction.“ Especially addictive substance use.

To sum this up, a lack of sleep can cause either extremely positive or extremely negative emotions both of which usually have extremely negative consequences!

Psychiatric Illnesses

First of all, let me clarify the following: Sleep deprivation does not cause psychiatric illnesses. However, it seems like the two often go together.

I firmly believe that sleep loss and mental illness is best described as a two-way street of interaction, with the flow of traffic being stronger in one direction or the other, depending on the disorder.

Matthew Walker

Thus, „there is no major psychiatric condition in which sleep is normal. This is true of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. Even though it is a common belief, it is often but not always true that mental disorders generally cause sleep disorders. Nevertheless, if you succeed in improving the sleep of patients suffering from psychiatric disorders with a certain technique called CBT-I, you might actually be able to improve the mental state of your patient.

Improving sleep quantity, quality and regularity . . . have systematically demonstrated the healing abilities of sleep for the minds of numerous psychiatric populations.

Matthew Walker

After all, psychiatric disorders are not caused by a lack of sleep but usually go hand in hand with sleep deprivation. There are reason to assume that on the other hand, if one could manage to improve the sleep of a person with psychiatric disorders, one could also improve her psychiatric condition.

Alzheimer’s Disease

Finally, „the two most feared diseases throughout developed nations are dementia and cancer. Both are related to inadequate sleep.“ Walker has a tiny subchapter on Sleep and Alzheimer’s Disease that I absolutely recommend reading in case you are interested. He goes very much into detail about different studies and findings about the connection between sleep deprivation and Alzheimer’s. Details that I am going to spare you in order not to confuse or bore you with beta-amyloid plaques, amyloid buildup or toxic amyloid deposits. I do want to share the conclusion of all those details, studies and investigations, though, namely the following prediction:

getting too little sleep across the adult life span will significantly raise your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Precisely this relationship has now been reported in numerous epidemiological studies, including those individuals suffering from sleep disorders such as insomnia and sleep apnea.

Matthew Walker

Lastly, Alzheimer’s disease seems to be related to a short sleep-habit. Here, too, sleeping longer hours at night might postpone the beginning of the disease or even lower the risk of coming down with it.

Apparently, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who were both short sleepers, developed the disease. Coincidence or related to their short sleep? I certainly don’t know. But just to be sure, let’s value our sleep and try to get enough of it. Sweet dreams. +++

To be continued!

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