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Losing sleep: How night owls live by night and manage sleep deprivation

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 21 2014 12:15 p.m. MST

A survey of 15 men showed that one night of sleep deprivation was linked to signs of brain tissue loss. With all of these possible effects creeping up with sleep deprivations, questions have risen about what people can do to find their Zs and what the personal, day-to-day effects of this are for a person on the street.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Dr. Nitun Verma lives by night.

He works 9 to 5 as a doctor in California’s Silicon Valley, so he’s up early — usually tired and sleepy from not sleeping the previous night. As a night owl, Verma lives by the night, with his heart and mind racing with thoughts, ideas and energy as the world around him collapses into darkness. He's up late working online or thinking about the day ahead of him. He's had this problem since high school.

Verma is both a doctor and a patient for sleep loss, which is having a severe and sometimes fatal effect on people. A recent study by SLEEP, the official journal of the American Sleep Disorders Association, followed 1,741 men over a 10- to 14-year period and found those who slept fewer than six hours a day had a higher mortality risk.

The study showed 21 percent of men and 5 percent of women were at risk. And another SLEEP study of 15 men showed that one night of sleep deprivation was linked to signs of brain tissue loss. It’s even affecting the young, experts say. Sleep loss for young kids who have a disorder, like sleep apnea, means they are more likely to struggle in school and social circles.

With these possible effects creeping up with sleep deprivations, questions have risen about what people can do to find their Zs — and about the personal, day-to-day effects for a person on the street. Though people are losing sleep, and some may even be dying because of it, Verma said there are solutions for those with sleep issues.

“This is something that is a natural fix, which means you don’t need strong medications,” he said, “and that’s always a better way of treating things.”

What is a night owl?

Night owls, or those who stay up into the late hours of the night, have a decreased ability to multitask and think creatively, he said. Their minds move slower, their memories aren’t as sharp, and they have difficulty focusing for long periods of time, Verma said.

Verma will often ask patients if they would rather work on an important project at 6 a.m. or 10 p.m. The answer to that question, he said, tells him whether someone is a night owl or not.

“If you can fall asleep pretty easily at night, you’re less likely to be a night owl,” he said. “Being a night owl means you have difficulty sleeping at night, even if you’re sleeping at the right times.” Verma said the correct hours of sleep are during night hours, like from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., or 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Verma doesn’t think sleep deprivation will kill you directly. Losing hours of sleep will have an effect mentally that could cause mental issues down the road, though, he said.

Dr. Robin Haight, a clinical psychologist and president-elect of the American Psychological Association, said she often sees clients with insomnia and sleep deprivation who stay awake at those late hours.

“Sleep is often disrupted when there is a presence of anxiety of depression or other life transitions,” she said. “Big life transitions can become very preoccupying for people, and that starts to look like insomnia.”

Many of her clients with sleep disorders have other mental health concerns, too, but she is not aware of any direct correlation between sleep patterns and mental health issues, she said. Over time, people who are sleep deprived because of insomnia can find themselves with mental health issues.

“Not only are their bodies wearing down, but their internal emotional and mental resources are becoming depleted over time,” Haight said.

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