When someone thinks of the health effects of missing sleep, they don’t always think of hormone problems. Perhaps they should.
I once knew a man who impressed me. He was stronger, tougher and smarter (in some ways) than me.
We’ll call him Alvin.
Alvin managed to hold two demanding full-time jobs for several months. For a while, at least, he did it flawlessly.
“I’ll get plenty of sleep on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday,” he said. Those were going to be his eight-hour days. He was assuring me how everything was going to work out for him. The rest of the week he worked eight hours one place and eight hours the other.
“Wow,” I said, impressed.
“Those other days, those are going to be a little tough, but I’ll manage. I’m not going to do this forever.”
As I said, Alvin was tougher than me. I knew I couldn’t keep that kind of schedule and feel good, much less function. I wouldn’t be able to think straight. I’m not that tough.
It was 1993 and ’94. Hard work was lionized. You had these dot com companies starting at that time. Entrepreneurs written about in the media would brag about their long days. It seemed like a contest over who could work the longest hours. It still is to some extent, but maybe I was more aware of it then.
Alvin was intent on buying an expensive sports car and paying cash. He favored Camaros.
He did get his car but kept on working all those hours, probably to help him afford the insurance. He ended up punching one of his clients. The cost of losing his career should be tacked onto the cost of his car.
He sold the Camaro. He moved to West Virginia. He wanted a simpler life. A year later I heard he had gotten in an accident while driving an 18-wheeler. He was then finished in another career and went on disability.
The lesson I learned from Alvin
Sometimes you need to work extra in order to get what you need. That’s a given. The question is, how long can you do this before bad stuff starts to happen to you? How long can you cheat sleep?
With an extended period of sleep deprivation, hormone production goes haywire. Many hormones are affected. In honor of my friend who was the epitome of the strong, virile type man with a boundless capacity for hard work, we’ll focus on testosterone. While I don’t know his exact blood value, he went from appearing to be high-energy to appearing weary in a matter of three months. Testosterone is just one hormone in the mix but there are others: melatonin; cortisol; insulin; norepinephrine; human growth hormone; serotonin to name a few. You don’t have to be a physiologist to know that if so many things get out of whack that, that’s going to be a problem.
Testosterone is highest in young men in their early 20s. It declines 1-2 percent per year without doing a thing.
One study of young men with an average age of 24 looked at what happens after a week of sleeping five hours per night. Testosterone levels went down by 10-15 percent after a week, effectively making them a decade older than what they actually were.
Their get-up-and-go diminished as the study progressed. Their mood worsened. While the report didn’t say that they ended up in a physical altercation the way Alvin did, bad moods can lead to that.
Other studies confirm a link between the amount of sleep an older man gets and testosterone levels.
Testosterone controls the sex drive. It affects bone mass, muscle size and strength, red blood cell production, and how fat is distributed on the body.
Those are all hugely important.
We make calculations with our health all of the time. The cost of missing sleep never gets figured in. It should. In some ways, sleep is priceless up to a certain point.
Unless you’ve had the privilege of knowing an Alvin, you don’t realize it right away.
Leproult R, Van Cauter E. Effect of One Week of Sleep Restriction on Testosterone Levels in Young Healthy Men. JAMA. 2011;305(21):2173–2174. doi:10.1001/jama.2011.710