By Trista Kelley
(Bloomberg) — People who frequently get too little sleep and try to make up the deficit with periodic longer bouts of rest perform more poorly at work, a study found.
Nine participants in the study, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, were asked to get by for three weeks with an average of 5.6 hours of sleep every 24 hours. While subjects snoozed 10 hours at a time to catch up on shuteye, their performance deteriorated in response tests during the subsequent 33 hours awake, making them vulnerable to errors and accidents.
The effects of sleep loss are "hazardous," researchers including Daniel A. Cohen at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston wrote in the study. Staying awake for 24 hours straight equals having a blood alcohol concentration of 0.10 percent, beyond the 0.08 percent legal limit for driving in the U.S. While the exact functions of sleep are unknown, earlier studies show that cheating the body out of rest increases the likelihood of illness, stress, weight gain, learning and memory problems and traffic accidents.
"These findings translate into a warning for employers," the editors wrote in an accompanying summary of the findings. "Workers who need to remain awake for extended periods of time cannot maintain normal performance — and may not be aware of this vulnerability — if they are suffering from chronic sleep loss."
The results suggest sleep loss affects the brain in at least two different ways: one regulatory process that builds over the hours spent awake and another that builds over days or weeks of getting too little sleep. The study may be useful in developing healthier schedules for those with shift jobs such as truck drivers and medical students, and to treat patients with sleep disorders, the authors said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Trista Kelley in London at firstname.lastname@example.org