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Educational Content

Sleep Deprivation: As Damaging to Brain Health as Binge Drinking?

Posted by Dr. Farrell Cahill, Lead Researcher, Medisys Health Group on Jan 11, 2019 3:33:39 PM

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If you are like many Canadians, you’re getting less than six hours of sleep per night. The cumulative health consequences of sleep deprivation are severe – including increased risk of hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, heart attack, and stroke1. Sleep deprivation negatively impacts the whole body, but as Dr. Adrian Owen explains further in his exclusive interview with Horizon Occupational Health Solutions, no one organ is as severely affected as the brain.

Recent reports suggest that about 1 in 3 Canadians are chronically sleep deprived, making Canada the 3rd most sleep deprived country on the planet! Not only is sleep deprivation having a devastating impact on our health, some report suggests that sleep deprivation is also costing the Canadian economy about $28.3 billion (CAD) per year due to lost employee productivity. Sleep deprivation has long been associated with acute cognitive impairment; however, more recent findings suggest that both the acute and long-term health implications of sleep deprivation are even broader and more complex than initially believed.

Poor sleep habits have been linked to everything from mental and emotional health issues, to weakened immunity, to increased risk of obesity. When it comes to weight management, sleep is an important hemostatic modulator and the reduction of sleep has been shown to significantly decrease both glucose and fat metabolism while also inappropriately increasing appetite2,3, leading to weight gain. “Sleep plays an important role in regulating the hormones that influence hunger (ghrelin, cortisol, and leptin),” explains Medisys Health Group Registered Dietitian Richelle Tabelon, “that’s why sleep deprivation increases appetite and can lead to overeating and weight gain” Tabelon continues. Regular exercise and maintaining a healthy diet will always be important components of weight maintenance – but if you are growing out of your clothes and can’t figure out why, it might be time start getting to bed earlier.

If the prospect of a weakened immune system, mental health disturbances, and increased risk of weight gain, heart disease, and type II diabetes doesn’t make you want to get more sleep, consider this: driving while sleep deprived (the norm for up to 30% of us) is the cognitive impairment equivalent of drunk driving.

Imagine this scenario: You wake up at 5:30 a.m. to get an early start on the day because the work site you need to get to is far away. By the time you finish work and complete some errands, it’s 8 p.m. and time to catch up with a friend for a bite to eat before driving home. It’s 10:30 p.m. and you have now been awake for 18 hours. Sound familiar? You are about to get behind the wheel, and even without one sip of alcohol you are, from a cognitive impairment perspective, intoxicated4. After just one more hour of being awake, 11:30 p.m. in this case, your cognitive performance would be as impaired as someone with a blood alcohol level of 0.1%. That’s equivalent to an average weight adult male consuming 5-6 drinks (assuming the Canadian standard of 13.6 grams of alcohol per drink). The cognitive impairment effects of long periods of wakefulness and alcohol consumption are cumulative – add even a small glass of wine or beer to the above scenario and by getting behind the wheel you are engaging in extremely risky behaviour.

Research on sleep and cognition has shown that engaging in any cognitively demanding task while sleep deprived is risky – be it a physical like operating a machine, or an intellectual one like critical decision making. Dr. Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist at Western University and the Chief Scientific Officer of Cambridge Brain Sciences — a leading online brain health platform — has been studying the effects of sleep deprivation on the brain. In an exclusive interview with Horizon Occupational Health Solutions, Dr. Owen sat with us to answer some of our burning questions about sleep health and the medical impact of sleep deprivation.

Q: What happens to our brains when we don’t get enough sleep?

A: We’ve long known that sleep deprivation negatively impacts alertness and reaction times, but more recent studies5 have concluded that a wider range of brain functions are disrupted by sleep loss, including attention, working memory, and emotional processing. The brain becomes less stable the longer you are awake, diminishing your ability to focus your cognitive resources where they are needed. One study6 scanned the brains of people at rest (but not asleep), and could, with very high accuracy, predict which brains were sleep-deprived and which were not. Interestingly, the sleep-deprived individuals had less overall connectivity between active areas. In other words, researchers could pick out a sleep-deprived individual just by looking at their brain activity at rest – suggesting sleep deprivation causes physiological changes in the brain!

Q: How do you define sleep deprivation and how common is it?

A: Sleep deprivation is, unfortunately, very common in Canada – it’s estimated that about 30% of Canadian adults get fewer than 6 hours of sleep per night.

In today’s business world, technology allows for many work tasks to be completed anywhere, at any time, using any device. Because of this, there is often pressure – whether it’s real or perceived – for people to put in as many hours of work as possible, even if it means less sleep. In certain industries such as first responders, logistics, and transit, long periods of wakefulness are often requirements of the job. In many cases, there are laws governing required rest times between shifts to protect both the worker and the public. However in some professions, such as medicine, 24 hour or longer shifts are not uncommon – which is particularly concerning from a public health perspective in light of mounting evidence that just 18 hours of wakefulness results in cognitive impairment equivalent to alcohol intoxication.

Regardless of the profession, more and more Canadian adults are working longer hours and sleeping less during the week – and don’t be fooled into thinking that a few ‘catch up sleep’ hours on the weekends are going to make up for the loss. From a neurological perspective, when you lose sleep, consider it gone forever.

Q: What’s the impact of sleep deprivation on Canadian businesses?

A: Sleep deprivation results in increased risk of workplace accidents and injury. The Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada (AWCBC) reported 852 workplace deaths in 2015 alone, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of claims processed every year for work-related injuries. Some of the more infamous workplace accidents linked to sleep deprivation include Chernobyl, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, and the nuclear incident at Three Mile Island.

A single long day at work can significantly impair an employee’s judgment, attention, reaction times, vigilance, and working memory7 – putting both the employee and the company at risk. This disrupted cognition due to sleep deprivation adds up over time and leads to widespread reductions in workplace productivity as well as increased risk of errors, omissions and workplace accidents and injuries.

One survey8 of four U.S. companies in various industries found that workers with poor sleep habits were less able to perform work tasks over time, costing the organization thousands of dollars per employee annually in productivity losses. Evidence suggests that inadequate sleep results in a 162% greater chance of a work-related injury9 and a significantly increased risk of motor vehicle crashes10.

It’s important to note that working while sleep deprived isn’t only hazardous within safety sensitive environments. Any executive accountable for business-critical decisions puts the company at risk if making these decisions while sleep deprived.

A word to the wise: Have a team member that worked overtime? Don’t give them a bonus, give them time off to sleep!

Download the Ultimate Sleep Guide to discover the importance of sleep for a safe and productive workplace.


For references, click here.

Tags: Injury Prevention