Chronic Sleep Deprivation is Affecting Americans More than We Think

Will chronic sleep deprivation be the next great health crisis?


   Not sleeping? Well, here’s something to either get you running to your bed or freak you out so much there’s no way you’re falling asleep. Professor Matthew Walker, the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at UC-Berkeley and author of the new book, Why We Sleep has some research suggesting that “every disease that is killing us in developed nations has causal and significant links to a lack of sleep.” He also says we’re currently experiencing a “catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic”


    We all know that for optimum health we should be getting eight hours of sleep a night, but how many of us are racking up that many hours of zzz’s? The short answer is only about 40 percent of the American adult population hits that number. The rest of us either can’t fall sleep or chose to sacrifice sleep due to a demanding schedule.



    If you have problems falling asleep and then staying asleep, you’ve got a lot of company. Insomnia is the number one sleep disorder in the United States and more than 30 percent of us will experience some form of insomnia over our lifetime. Women report insomnia symptoms about 50 percent more often than men.

    Dr. Jason Graff, medical director of Saint Luke’s Health System’s Sleep Disorders Program, says although insomnia has always been around, the prevalence of stress in our lives has made it more profound than ever.

   “The more common person that I see who has difficulty sleeping might be a worrier with a Type A personality, who has difficulty going to bed when there are tasks undone. They might think excessively or stress out a lot about the things they have to do the next day, or things that happened during the day.”

   Mindy Hart fits this description. She juggles a lot of responsibilities, including running her own company. Many nights she averages only four to five hours of sleep. Her ritual is to fall asleep for a few hours, wake up and then struggle falling back asleep.”

   Hart calls being tired her “new normal” and says she’s just gotten used to “rolling with it” but the busy executive admits that some days the lack of sleep leaves her feeling fuzzy brained. “My cognitive thoughts slow down and name recall is also impacted.”

   Graff says all sorts of immediate problems can result from lack of sleep, including lower energy, fatigue, bad moods, poor judgment or concentration, accidents and falling asleep during the day.

   As far as long-term problems, recent studies suggest a link between disturbed or fragmented sleep of any sort, including insomnia and sleep apnea, with an increased risk of dementia because memory is consolidated in deeper stages of sleep.

   Doctors warn that popping a pill to get to sleep should only be used as a short-term solution. Many over-the-counter sleeping aids contain Benadryl which can make you groggy the next day, and prescription medication is seen as a stopgap to get a patient through a severe case of insomnia. Some can even be potentially addictive. There is also a concern that as you age a prescribed sleeping medication could affect your memory.

   If you find yourself suffering from insomnia you don’t just have to punch your pillow and accept it. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy should be the first line of treatment for chronic insomnia, Graff says, CBT requires a sleep therapist to evaluate a person’s sleep habits and identify certain things they may be doing that are counterproductive to sleep.

   “A lot of people who have chronic insomnia start to develop negative attitudes about sleep,” Graff explains. “They’ve had bad sleep for so long that sometimes just the thought of trying to go to sleep or the thought of the bedroom creates stress that sort of becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that they can’t sleep. They start to get an overblown concept of the consequences of a bad of night’s sleep, get themselves worked up a little bit, to where of course they can’t sleep. CBT tries to break those negative thoughts to get the person more mentally ready to sleep, and sometimes that involves distraction or relaxation techniques.”



   Even if you don’t have trouble falling asleep, more and more people are eschewing it to get things done. In the good old days, less than eight percent of the population was trying to survive on six hours or less sleep a night. Today almost one in two people are.

   In a surprise to no one who’s had to spend the night consoling a teething infant or made a midnight run to Walmart to pick up supplies for a fourth grade diorama project, parents with children under 18 are the most sleep-deprived.

   Many parents say they have no choice but to stay up late or their to-do list would hemorrhage. A lot of mothers admit that the wee hours of the morning are the only time they have to themselves and they’re loathe to give that up. One Olathe mom calls 12:30 to 1:30 a.m. her “golden hour” that is just for her. A time when she is “not obligated to do anything for anyone else.”

   Kimberly Macias, a North Kansas City mother to two kids with busy extra-curricular schedules says, “I feel like I have to stay up a little bit later because that’s the only downtime I get. I feel like I have to unwind and just have some ‘me’ time. Otherwise my entire life is just run, run, run and work, work, work.”



   It also doesn’t help that in today’s culture, sleep-shaming is rampant. Getting eight hours of sack time can be seen as something you do if you don’t, ahem, have a lot going on.

   Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, boasts about starting work at 3:45 a.m. (He says he tries to go to bed at 10:30.) He even tweets when he “sleeps in” which is 4:30 in the morning.

   In a recent Inc Magazine article a roundup of CEO’s alarm clocks showed that most titans of industry are up between 4:30 and 5 a.m. and a Wall Street Journal headline declared “4 a.m. as the most productive hour.”

   Thinking you’re getting more done by not going to bed may be a myth. Sleep research shows that after being awake for 19 hours, you’re as cognitively impaired as someone who is drunk. Poor sleep results in 20 percent of serious car accidents and many man-made disasters, including Bhopal, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Exxon Valdez were partially blamed on lack of sleep.

   There is also no sleep “savings account.” You can’t make excuses for getting only four hours on one night because you got 10 hours on another. Walker says you can’t bank shut-eye. The restorative properties of sleep don’t work that way.

   Doctors have three words of advice to anyone looking to greatly improve their health, longevity and quality of life – Go. To. Sleep




   Allow plenty of time for sleep.

   Allow an hour or two before bedtime to unwind by taking a bath or reading a book.

   Avoid tobacco, caffeine, alcohol and exercise before bedtime.

   Have a quiet, cool (68 degrees), dark environment without stimulus, like televisions or hand-held electronics. Studies show people who sleep with the television on awaken more frequently.

   Don’t stress over sleep. Get out of bed and do something boring if you can’t fall asleep.

   Don’t go to bed hungry. Eat a light snack if needed.

 Get daily exercise.

   Avoid napping during the day.


   If you need help chilling out these apps are popular for clearing the mind and even tracking your sleep patterns.

   Breethe: This app was the hands down favorite of the busy moms we talked to. One said, “It has so many choices. I can pick one to help me fall asleep (Sweet Dreams) and then there’s even sleep meditation for your kids.

    Calm:  Blue Valley West high school counselor Samantha Coronado says she uses the Calm App a lot with her students. “It helps kids and adults relieve stress and anxiety.” The app’s most popular feature is their “7 Days of Calm” meditation.

   Headspace: This app calls itself a “personal trainer for the mind.” Overland Park student, Peter Morrison says it works. “There are times when I feel extremely stressed and this app helps me forget about what is going on in my life. It is also extremely easy to use.”

   Relax Melodies: Recent college grad, Ally Render is a fan of this app because you can personalize the sound to your mood. “You can mess around with all the different sounds and it becomes unique for you, making it the perfect app to fall asleep or meditate to.”

   Sleep Cycle: Layne Nudson gives Sleep Cycle rave reviews and tech geeks share her enthusiasm. “Sleep Cycle is amazing; it allows me to find patterns in my sleep and wakes me up in the morning based on the level of REM that I am in.”

Categories: Health & Wellness, Healthy Living