The idiom “Don’t burn the candle at both ends” first entered the English language in the early 18 Century. Originating from a French phrase, it refers to the modern day habit of working (or otherwise being active) from early in the morning until late into the night.
In the 18 Century, candles were expensive. Burning them at both ends was wasteful. Presumably it was messy too as holding a candle horizontally to enable the flame to burn at each end must have dripped hot wax everywhere!
Common usage is particularly relevant today when many people extend their working day into late evening. When they eventually crawl into bed, tired but wired, sleep doesn’t come easily. Repeated over the working week, this results in a chronic lack of sleep.
Now you may think that weekdays you can get by on 5 or 6 hours a night as long as you can make it up at the weekend. Sadly the science doesn’t bear this out. Numerous studies demonstrate that whether you throw the occasional all-nighter or have reduced hours over a few nights, the effect is the same. There are serious consequences for your physical, cognitive and emotional health.
For example, just one night of modest sleep deprivation leads to an increase in blood pressure in healthy young adults. People who average 5 or 6 hours of sleep per night are more at risk of blockages to the coronary arteries.
When it comes to cognitive functioning, good quality sleep increases your ability to learn and retain facts. During certain phases of sleep, new learning is shifted from short term storage to a permanent home in the cortex of the brain. Miss out on some phases and you’ll experience brain fog and memory blocks.
Chronic lack of sleep also makes you more accident-prone. An American study involving over 7000 drivers over a 3 year period found that, after a night of just 5 hours sleep, the chances of a car crash increase threefold.
Finally, have you ever had that disquieting experience of losing your rag? You just flipped? Saw red? This is far more likely to happen after a poor night’s sleep. The reason? Sleep deprivation uncouples the amygdala – the part of the brain associated with emotions – from the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with rational thought and decision making. When we sleep well, these two centres are kept in balance; too little sleep and the amygdala takes over, often with disastrous results.
In short, while a long lie-in at the weekend may be very enjoyable and make you feel better, it really isn’t possible to reverse the impact of lost hours. Sleep isn’t something you can bank. You need to be in credit each day, every day. Seven is the magic number – at least seven good hours, seven days of the week.
People around you at work may boast that they can manage on less but the scientific evidence is most certainly against them. Good sleep is simply your most powerful ally when it comes to performance and wellbeing.
To stop burning the candle at both ends and learn how to get your seven hours, sign up here for my free 7 Day Better Sleep Challenge. You’ve got nothing to lose and an awful lot to gain.