Sleep deprivation makes you drunk. 

The performance decrements you’re feeling after a night of drinking might not be solely due to the alcohol itself. If you put your body through a night of insufficient sleep and take the alcohol out of the picture, you’re still left with catastrophic declines in mental and physical function. 

Catastrophic is a strong word. It’s not unfitting. Plus, the level of sleep deprivation required to reach this suboptimal state is not restricted to all-nighters. 

In fact, maintaining wakefulness for 17-19 hours can create the same drop in performance as an individual would experience with a blood alcohol content of 0.05% BAC. To put that into context, a ~170 pound male would have to consume approximately four drinks in two hours to reach a 0.05% BAC. 

In some cases, individuals with 20 hour wakefulness reached cognitive impairment equivalent to 0.10% BAC, which exceeds the legal driving limit in the U.S. 

The repercussions of excessive wakefulness are not ones to boast to Twitter. 

The drop in performance between 13 hour wakefulness and 23 hour wakefulness is astounding. If you want to talk about stats, these are the ones to consider:

  • Reaction speed decreased by 57%
  • Hand-eye coordination decreased as much as 31%
  • Missed signals on accuracy tests increased 187%
  • False alarm reactions increased 200%
  • Grammatical reasoning and memory both decreased between 5-10% 

What is particularly alarming about the severity of these numbers is that they are not depicting extremes. 

17 hour wake cycles are not unusual. They are commonplace in universities and offices. 

If becoming a top performer is your goal, losing quality sleep should sit toward the bottom of your to-do list. 

Sometimes, life gets in the way. 

If you’re a parent, managing the lives of your children and pursuing your visions may mean long days. The same is true for the solo athlete balancing six grad school engineering courses. 

If you know the days are long, there are still some tips and tricks you can use to ensure that the sleep you do manage to get contributes to your most joyful and present self.

  1. Change the light you see in the hours leading up to bed
  • Several studies have looked into the role of light on melatonin production. Interestingly, bright light and certain hues of light have an inhibiting effect on the essential sleep molecule. 
    • Specifically, white light, blue light, and green light exposure before bed prohibited the release of melatonin for several hours. One bout of blue light led to a 3 hour delay in melatonin release. Green light led to a 90 minute delay. 
    • Alternatively, softer lighting and warmer hues of light (i.e. oranges and reds) had a melatonin-promoting effect. When compared to white light exposure before bed, participants seeing red light had a peak melatonin production (synonymous with the most restful sleep stages) nearly an entire hour earlier. 
    • Our favorite way to support this finding is to use adjustable LED bulbs and light strips. If you have the means, investing in Philips Hue light bulbs enables programming sunset-like timing into your house lighting. When the sun starts to set, have your lights shift to warmer, softer hues and boost your melatonin production earlier. 
    • Most blue light filtering glasses suck. These Uvex ones (links to Amazon ~$26 for 3-pack) do not suck. In fact, they are the most effective option I’ve found (outside of changing the light color itself). 
  1. Make it cold
  • Similar to matching your lights to those seen during sunset, matching your house temperature to the typical pattern of the day boosts melatonin production as well. If you have AC, set your system schedule to be the warmest during midday, but drop the temperature to between 60-67 degrees Fahrenheit at least 2 hours before bed. 
  • If you don’t have AC or want to have a more efficient cooling bill, consider investing in a sleep system like the Chili-Pad. There will be a more detailed write-up about this system in the coming weeks, but I attribute this machine to some of the deepest, highest quality sleep I’ve ever had.
    • Each member here at D1 uses a Chili-Pad, and it may be one of the most effective choices for cooling your core body temperature at night. Put simply, this system heats and cools water to your desired temperature and cycles it through a bedsheet-like mattress cover. It’s a closed system and no water can escape the soft tubes (you don’t even know there’s water there), so it provides a discreet and effective cooling experience. Alternatives like the Bedjet are more expensive and less effective. I also recommend this system for any couples who prefer different temperatures at night, as you can order a “We” system and have each half of the bed set to different temperatures. 
  1. Make it dark
  • Artificial light at night stinks. Especially if it’s emitted from electronics in your room or coming through your window(s). Light exposure prevents the release of melatonin, so if you have any light hitting your closed eye-lids, the receptors in your eyes can still be activated and affect the quality of your sleep. Investing in a solid set of blackout curtains can help prevent these issues. While an interior designer might cringe at the idea, using a thick quilt to cover your bedroom windows from the inside is a cheap and effective choice.
    • To support a light-free bedroom, remove all electronics when possible. If you live in a smaller, multi-functional space, ensure lights on devices are covered and be strategic with your environmental design. Do not use your computer in bed, and turn clocks, screens, and other lights away from the bed. 
  1. Limit chemicals 
  • These are the typical culprits: caffeine and alcohol. The average plasma half life of caffeine is approximately 5 hours, so the cup of coffee (approx. 150 mg) someone consumes at 11:00 am is reduced to a still alarming 75 mg by 4:00 pm and still over 30 mg by 9:00 pm. To put 30 mg of caffeine in perspective, a typical cup of caffeinated green tea typically contains somewhere around 35 mg of caffeine. If you’re a coffee drinker, aim to consume your cup of coffee in the earliest morning hours. Avoid any caffeine after midday.
  • One of the most common practices to induce a ‘sleep’ stupor is the use of an alcohol “nightcap”. Firstly, alcohol is a powerful disruptor of REM. Therefore, alcohol is a powerful disruptor of establishing new neural connections and integrating knowledge for later use.
    • Individuals who consume alcohol before bed have suppressed REM, increased latency to REM, decreased overall REM sleep, and decreased REM sleep in the first half of the night. Second, alcohol causes another disruption in quality of sleep called ‘sleep fragmentation’. When you consume alcohol, you wake up more frequently. Sleep fragmentation is rarely recognized by the individual. Oftentimes, those who consume alcohol may not remember waking.
    • For high-quality, restorative sleep, your mind and body need continuous cycles through NREM stages 1-4 and REM. If you are continuously waking, even for brief periods, this cyclical pattern of sleep is disturbed. More fragmented sleep leads to increased fatigue and diminished mental and physical performance the following day.
  1. Expose yourself to bright light in the morning
  • Interestingly, one of the most significant factors behind melatonin production is the use of zeitgebers (body clocks). One of the best zeitgebers? Early morning light exposure. If you want to set a new wake schedule or reinforce your current one, get outside or use a strong bright white light emitting lamp at the desired time of day. In studies, 30 minutes of such light exposure set a brand new sleep schedule after only a few days. With continued practice, your melatonin production will be wired to an exact schedule and you will find greater restorative sleep, decreased sleep latency, and less grogginess in the morning. Do not use light exposure from a lamp in the late afternoon hours, as this will inhibit your melatonin production.

References

Williamson AM, Feyer AM. Moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication. Occup Environ Med. 2000;57(10):649-655. doi:10.1136/oem.57.10.649