You’re sitting at your computer and you feel it: that haze that causes your mind to unfocus, and your eyelids to droop. You realize you’ve been reading the same sentence for the last five minutes. Your head starts to nod. It hits you: You’re sleepy.
Sound familiar? You wouldn’t be the only one. An estimated three-quarters of adult Americans suffer from some kind of sleep deprivation, from daytime sleepiness resulting from late nights, to the evil cycle of sleep apnea and sleep loss to the kind of narcolepsy that puts people out mid-sentence.
“It’s a huge epidemic,” said Dr. Victor Rosenfeld , a neurologist with Sansum Clinic. As a sleep specialist. he deals with patients that complain of things such as insomnia, daytime fatigue and sleepiness and a host of other problems related to not getting enough sleep. And there are many.
On average, American adults get about five to six hours of sleep a night, said Rosenfeld. The optimal amount of sleep hovers around seven or eight hours, but even the loss of that one or two hours is enough to make a huge impact over time.
“We used to think that sleep is an inactive process,” said Rosenfeld. It might explain why modern society tends to value those who are willing to put in the late nights to get ahead, or why many people plan active, adventurous vacations, the kind you need another vacation just to get over.
“We now know that sleep is a highly active process,” he said. Over the time you’re sleeping in bed, a series of processes take over your body. Your hormones regulate, your immune system kicks in, there are changes in the electrical activity of the brain. All of these things are necessary for the proper functioning of your body the next day.
Do you want to save money? Get some sleep.
There are a multitude of conditions associated with lack of sleep, said Rosenfeld. Among them are hypertension, glaucoma, stroke, lack of bladder control and symptoms of depression, just to name a few. While you might not be able to eliminate every issue by sleeping seven to eight hours a night, there’s a chance you could need less of the Procardia or the Prozac and other prescription drugs people spend thousands of dollars on every year.
“It’s about more than just not getting all your work done.”
— Dr. Victor Rosenfeld
The National Transportation Safety Board says sleepiness on the road is responsible for about 100,000 crashes each year, resulting in around 40,000 injuries and about 15,000 deaths.
An estimated $16 billion every year is spent by businesses having to deal with employees missing work because of sleep-related health issues, and accidents in the workplace because of sleep-deprived workers.
The disasters at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, the Exxon Valdez spill and the Challenger shuttle explosion have all been linked to lack of sleep experienced by people involved.
“The medical profession will tend to overtreat things,” said Rosenfeld, adding that people in general tend to overlook sleep’s restorative power and rely on drugs, which often leads to more drugs to cope with the side effects of the original drugs. And if you’re not taking prescription meds, just think of all the money you’ll save by not having to down five cups of coffee just to get through the day.
Do you want to lose weight? Get some sleep.
“You actually lose weight if you are sleeping appropriately,” said Rosenfeld.
To understand what “appropriate” sleep is, it’s important to understand that there are several stages of sleep, including light, REM and deep. Light sleep is that phase of drifting off. Your body relaxes, but you’re still sort of aware of your surroundings. REM, or random eye movement sleep, is the phase of dreaming, where your mind sorts out all the things of the day — think of it as defragmentation for your brain. Deep sleep is where all the enzymes and hormones come in to help repair your tissues and reset your chemical processes, including the ones that dictate whether to store fat or not.
Sleep apnea is a condition that’s particularly insidious because of its cycle of preventing the overweight person from getting the kind of sleep he or she needs to be able to regulate metabolic functions. It’s also a condition that can go undiagnosed.
If you experience daytime sleepiness even if you’re in bed eight or even more hours a night, a sleep study, like the ones the people at Arete sleep lab do, might be the first step in determining your condition. A night or two with electrodes stuck to your head could be worth knowing how to get a better night’s sleep for the rest of your life.
Do you want better sex? You get the point.
In order to get better sleep, said Rosenfeld, it’s important to know your circadian rhythm. Now that we have the capacity to stay up way past sundown, a lot of times one’s rhythm is not obvious.
“People in the field of sleep medicine say the problem started with (Thomas) Edison,” said Rosenfeld. Still, he said, if you can pay attention to when your body naturally wants to sleep, you can figure out when the best time for you to sleep is.
The next step would be to work according to that rhythm, according to Rosenfeld.
“You can’t just work up to bedtime and expect yourself to fall asleep right away,” he said. Instead, give yourself at least half an hour to cool down and relax.
Along that line, avoiding stimulation before bedtime — from caffeine to television — is important.
“A lot of people think they need the TV on to go to sleep,” said Rosenfeld. “That’s the worst thing you can do.”
Taking it a step further, Rosenfeld, like many of his colleagues in the sleep medicine field, suggests removing the TV, and the computer for that matter, from the bedroom.
“Your bed space should be a sanctuary, only for sleep or sex.”
Also, don’t skimp on the comfort. The room, advise the sleep techs at Arete, should be quiet, cool and dim, as light can interfere with one’s circadian rhythm.
Getting enough continuous sleep is a tall order for many people, from the harried student to the new mother, or the world’s population of shift workers (people that work during the times normally reserved for sleep), but it’s definitely something worth shooting for.
“If we were all getting enough good sleep,” said Rosenfeld, “we’d certainly be thinner, happier and with less disease.”