What’s more important: Food or Sleep?

11 Aug

This post is originally from my own blog but I figured you guys might benefit as well.

Would you rather miss an hour’s sleep a night, or one meal a day?

Don’t answer reflexively, think about it.

We all know we need to get our 8 hours a night, but things get in the way. We stay up late glued to TV, computer and smartphone screens (guilty), we figure we can function on just a little less and make it up on the weekend, we have issues falling asleep so we do something else instead, (guilty) and since we don’t feel particularly bad the next day, it’s fine.

What’s one hour or two hours of lost sleep mean anyway?

Contrast this to food:

Have you ever missed breakfast before going to work? Come 10 AM, you’re starving. Lunch can’t come fast enough. Or if you’ve missed lunch, remember how hungry you’ve been at dinner a few hours later? Ravenous. Food seems like the more important option right?

The average person would rather miss an hour or two’s sleep then miss a meal or two. But to put the problem in better perspective:

What would leave you feeling worse: 24 hours without food or 24 hours without sleep?

When phrased this way, nearly everyone picks sleep as being more important.

They’re right. Sleep is by far more important then food. On a biological level the human body is built to under periods of fasting very regularly,  What it isn’t designed to do, is go even short periods of time without sleep.

Lack of sleep affects working memory, immune function, hormone levels, will power and intelligence. If you miss an hour or two of sleep one night it won’t kill you, you’ll just feel a little groggy.

Miss an hour consecutive days or skip the whole night and you’ll be operating at a fraction of your normal ability. It’s like trying to function while being legally drunk.

Problem is, you don’t even know how bad you’re doing and the side effects of extended sleep deprivation are extensive.

Sleep is especially important for anyone who trains at high intensity. It’s essential for muscle repair, muscle growth and making sure your Central Nervous System recovers properly.

Before anyone starts with cries of, “But what about polyphasic sleep?” I’ll address that in another post.

Fine. You get it. Sleep is important.

How to prioritize sleep:

Try this: Never sacrifice sleep for food. If your option is to stay up and make dinner or go to bed early, skip dinner and go to bed. Skipping dinner won’t kill you (quite the opposite in fact). I’ll avoid going into the details of intermittent fasting, but skipping dinner once in a while to get a few more hours of sleep will help more then a few blood chemical markers, cognitive ability, and insulin sensitivity.

How to avoid getting your circadian rhythm screwed by computer screens:

For the technofiles who work at a computer all day and into the night: Install f.lux on the computers you use to adjust blue light emissions. Blue light tricks your body into thinking it’s daylight, which messes up your internal clock.

But what happens if you miss sleep?

Naps. Naps are your friend. If you’ve missed sleep, taking a nap is the best thing to do. Naps as short as 20 minutes can help mitigate the side effects of sleep deprivation. However, you will not function at the same level as you would be normally and shouldn’t operate under the illusion that you are.


– Don’t sacrifice sleep for food.

– Install f.lux on your computer to limit your exposure to blue light throughout the day.

– If you miss sleep, take naps. At least 20 mins (minimum effective dose) but remember that your performance will be compromised.


1) Moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication – A M Williamsona, Anne-Marie Feyerb. Here

2) Neurocognitive Consequences of Sleep Deprivation – Jeffrey S. Durmer, David F. DingesHere

3) A good overview of military sleep research Here

6 thoughts on “What’s more important: Food or Sleep?

  1. Phil- v interesting, thanks for posting. Pedantic question maybe but are you saying the specific 8 hours exactly is important or is it just whatever length of time your body’s used to? I haven’t had 8 hours sleep during the week since starting work four years ago, generally between 5 and 6. Weekends I end up waking at a similar time, maybe will doze a bit though. I only really sleep more when I go on hols or away from London.

  2. Pat: You should be getting 7.5 – 8 hours sleep every night. There are people such as yourself who can function fine with less, although I know if I only slept 5 – 6 hours every night I would soon suffer and shut down.

    You should try getting more sleep if you can, it will help with recovery and restoration and you should see performance and times go up in the gym.

  3. I’m with Patrick here or worse often!  It’s all very well Simon suggesting we ‘should’ get more sleep but just try telling that to my body!  

    It’s not that I don’t go to bed on time giving my body the ‘opportunity’ to sleep it’s just that it doesn’t take it.  For years now (at least ten) I have suffered from insomnia and not much seems to help it.  I’ve tried various things.  In the end I just seem to have to put up with whatever sleep I get and try not to worry too much about it or that just makes it harder to sleep the next day. 

    Patrick – I always figure if I can get 4 continual hours a night that is a pretty good night for me.  Then the rest of the time I am sort of resting with occasional dozing.  Strangely even when I have a really bad night like last night when I ‘felt’ like I didn’t get any continual deepish sleep I still dream.  I always seem to dream even when the sleep quality is awful.  Partly I think all this started related to constant deadlines at work and adrenaline etc  but now I think it might also be related to my age and perhaps peri-menopause. 

    Thanks for the interesting article though Phil.  I do hope we will be able to continue reading your articles even when you leave us.  

  4. Well said Cindy. We both seem to have intermittent insomnia, which is worse in the summer. Over the last couple of years we’ve had soundproofing secondary glazing installed (its noisy here), air conditioning and a blackout blind. It helps, but is no cure.
    If I miss even half an hour of my 7.5 hours sleep, I;m a mess the next day.
    Also, where are office workers supposed to take naps? If you have your head on the desk, everyone will think you’re hungover and take a dim view of you’re performance. I’ve only worked one place that had a ‘sick bay’, and that was marvellous.

  5. Well Patrick was stating that he “just got” that amount of sleep, I presume because of work/life schedules and because his body is now used to it. He didn’t mention anything about Insomnia which was why my post didn’t cover it.

    I know where you are coming from, i’ve experienced bouts of Insomnia before. Never really figured out why as there are so many variables including stress, room temperature, room lighting, whether you’ve just been physically/mentally active before bed (think TV/computer screens) and diet can all play a part.

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