Are your decisions affected by sleep debt?

Ruth Davies 03 June 2014

Six in ten of us aren’t getting enough sleep, according to a recent YouGov poll. Recent research found that staying up for just 20 hours had the same effect on reflexes as a blood alcohol level of 0.05%. Stress, computers and taking work home have all been blamed for the rise in sleepless nights, and we’ll probably all experience a few of those restless, tormenting times where we just can’t nod off. Sleep debt is the long-term result of repeated sleep deprivation...

The tell-tale signs

The human body gives plenty of warning signs when you haven’t had enough sleep. But if you’re consistently not getting enough, you may have learnt to ignore these red lights:

You’re stumped by simple decisions

Sean Drummond, a sleep researcher from the University of California, suggests that the finer details of any decision - big or small - become overwhelming when you’re in sleep debt. The least significant aspects may become the most significant. Severely tired people are also more likely to take unnecessary risks and have trouble adjusting to changing circumstances.

You lack self control

According to a 2004 study, people who slept for less than six hours a day were 30% more likely to be obese than those who slept for between seven and nine hours. This has been linked to disrupted levels of blood glucose in sleep deprived people, alongside a drop in leptin (the hormone that curbs appetite) and a rise in its counterpart ghrelin (the hunger-stimulating hormone). According to the American Academy of Sleep Studies, those in sleep debt are also more likely to reach for the biscuit tin: they’re drawn to sugars and other simple carbohydrates as the body seeks a quick pick-me-up. Also note: you’re similarly less self-controlled in social situations if you’re sleep deprived.

You’re accident-prone

Sleep deprivation was a factor in some of the worst disasters in living memory, including the 1986 nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents reckon that driver fatigue is a contributing factor in at least 20% of road accidents. Sleepiness reduces reaction time and hampers your spacial awareness, as well as impairing your reflexes and your senses. For those with serious sleep deprivation, the brain may take mini-sleeps, causing sufferers to black out momentarily - enough time for them to trip over a kerb or drop a bowl.

You’re forgetful

Can’t remember where you left your keys? It’s only going to get worse when you’ve built up sleep debt. In the night, various deep sleep cycles play a role in consolidating your short term memory - helping you to retain what happened during the day. If the quality or quantity of your sleep isn’t enough to allow these processes to take place regularly, you may find yourself struggling to remember simple things.

You make poor judgements

According to sleep experts, if you think you’re fine on less sleep, you’re probably wrong. Not only does lack of sleep affect our ability to make sound judgement calls, we’re also unable to make good decisions about sleep. From a number of sleep studies, people who sleep for six or less hours a night start to believe that they have adjusted to their sleep deprivation. However, in tests of mental performance and concentration, they are significantly impaired compared to people who consistently sleep for more than seven hours. In other words, there’s a point where we’re so sleep deprived we become unaware of it.

How to combat sleep debt and make better decisions

The obvious solution to sleep debt is to sleep more, but you might be surprised by the amount of sleep you’ll need to get to counteract the effects of a period of consistent sleep deprivation: think weeks of extra sleep rather than days. You might also want to think about taking more time out during the day to rest. Be warned: sitting or lying down to watch TV or check your emails may not be enough and to restore your mental and physical abilities you may need to sit or lie down and be completely inactive, even practising meditation or mindfulness. The brain is able to take quick recharges, but it will require discipline and the ability to step out of your daily schedule. Sleep experts vary on the optimum number of hours of sleep we should be getting per night, but most agree that more than seven is a good amount.

If you’re thinking about making a financial decision, from budgeting for next week’s groceries to investing money or buying a house, it’s worth knowing when you’re at your most perceptive. If you’re going to see the bank manager about a mortgage, or you’re about to fill out an application form for a loan, try to move these to the times when you’re at your peak. If you suspect you might be sleep deprived or suffering from sleep deprivation, you might want to get a second opinion from a friend or partner before making any financial decisions.

Managing your finances isn’t easy, and keeping track of your spending and aims for the future can slide when you’re focused on getting through the day on less than six hours of sleep. While we can’t help with any brain fog, MoneyHub technology could help you to see all your finances in one place at-a-glance.