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How dangerous is sleep deprivation, really?

If you sleep less than six hours a night, you're likely sleep-deprived, an expert says.

Story highlights

  • Sleep deprivation affects your reaction time, cognition and emotions
  • It can be dangerous, especially if you're driving
  • Some people need more sleep than others

Everyone has a night here or there where sufficient sleep just doesn't happen. (Just ask anyone who's ever been to Vegas... or cared for a newborn.) But a lot of people miss out on getting significant shut-eye on a regular basis. In fact, about one in five American adults are sleep deprived.

The rumor: Sleep deprivation is harmful and can even be life-threatening

If you've ever come close to nodding off in the boardroom or behind the wheel, you know that the effects of sleep deprivation can range from embarrassing to downright terrifying. But are we really putting ourselves and others at risk, however inadvertently? And if we are sleep deprived, how do we fix it?

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The verdict: Sleep deprivation really is dangerous for your body and mind

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I hate to break it to you, but sleep deprivation really can be life-threatening.

    "Sleep deprivation is the single most dangerous aspect of any sleep disorder, because you have no idea that you are compromised cognitively, physically and emotionally," says sleep expert and upwave reviewer Michael Breus.

    Sleep deprivation affects three distinct areas of life. The first, and probably most life-threatening, is reaction time. People who operate heavy equipment or drive any kind of vehicle are likely to have dulled reaction times when sleep-deprived, making them more prone to accidents. In fact, recent research has found drowsy driving to be just as risky as drunk driving. So you might want to think twice before staying up late to catch the end of that football game.

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    Cognition -- how we think, retain memories, process information and make decisions -- is also negatively impacted by sleep deprivation. "It's easy to miss a fine detail when sleep-deprived," explains Breus. "We often don't put information together correctly." This may not seem like a big deal... until you mess up that major report for your boss, or forget what time your flight home is!

    Emotions are also greatly heightened by lack of quality sleep, says Breus. Everything from anger to sadness to frustration all get blown out of proportion, making a potentially bad situation that much worse.

    So, what can you do to fix the problem? Well, you could just try going to bed earlier. But a late bedtime is hardly the only cause of sleep deprivation. Others include stress, environmental factors (a snoring spouse; an excessively warm bedroom) and poor diet (heartburn; excessive alcohol; too much caffeine).

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    Also, there's no one "ideal" amount of sleep. Some people function just fine on seven hours, whereas others (like me) need a heftier nine. "The minimum number of hours is six," says Breus. "Anything less is, in all likelihood, sleep deprivation."

    To identify your ideal time for lights-out, Breus suggests counting backwards about seven and a half hours from your required wake-up time. "If you wake up five minutes before your alarm goes off, you've nailed it," he says. By the same token, if you rise feeling refreshed, you're right on the money. If not, you're probably sleep-deprived, which can lead to those cognitive, reaction and emotional issues we've discussed.

    upwave: How to sleep 7.5 hours a night

    I know that sleep often seems negotiable, but our bodies and minds really need the consistency of a quality night's rest to prepare and reboot for the coming day.

    So take an honest look at your sleep hygeine. Chances are, you can make a few changes to get more sleep. Of course, if problems persist, you may want to consult your doctor. We all need to be at our thinking, feeling and reactive best in order to thrive and stay safe. In most cases, a little extra shut-eye will get you there! Sleep tight!

    This article was originally published on upwave.com.