We’ve all heard and perhaps admired overachievers who need only four hours’ sleep per night (Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer comes to mind). But these folks aren’t doing their health any favors: Research indicates that inadequate sleep disrupts the body’s ability to process sugar, causing metabolic disorders such as type 2 diabetes and obesity.
Wendy, who asked that her last name not be published, provides a startling example. Wendy didn’t believe a co-worker who said she’d fallen asleep during a conversation until the co-worker recorded a video. “My head was rolled back and I was snoring,” Wendy says.
She saw her doctor, who recommended a sleep study, which revealed she had sleep apnea, a disorder characterized by pauses in breathing. Aside from her obesity, which she had fought with diet and exercise for years, her blood pressure was high and oxygen in her blood was dangerously low. She also confided to her doctor that she had started experiencing hallucinations. He said all her symptoms were classic.
Six months after she started using a prescribed BiPAP machine to help with breathing at night, Wendy had lost 60 pounds—without any additional dieting or exercise—and her oxygen level and blood pressure had improved.
Although sleep apnea patients and night-shift workers immediately come to mind as targets for sleep-related health issues, a report in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology identified lifestyle—in other words, personal choice—as the most important contributor to sleep deprivation. Which means anyone who skimps on sleep is at risk.
The report predicted that improved sleep quality and duration could stem “the present epidemic of metabolic disorders” to lengthen lives and reduce chronic illnesses.