Do you often get less than seven hours of sleep? If so, being bleary eyed and out-of-sorts the next day may actually be the least of your problems.
New research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds that one out of every three Americans regularly gets less than seven hours of shut-eye. This is the amount of time needed to complete all the stages of sleep. In addition to not feeling refreshed when they wake up, people who routinely sleep less than seven hours at one stretch are at increased risk for a wide variety of health problems that are rampant in the U.S. and Canada. These include obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, stroke and stress.
Sleep experts say the CDC findings, the first to document sleep patterns in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, show that sleep is a vital component of overall health.
“People have to recognize that sleep is just as important as what they’re eating and how much they’re exercising,” said Dr. Shalini Paruthi, co-director of the Sleep Medicine and Research Center at St. Luke’s Hospital in St. Louis. “It’s one of the pillars of good health.”
Costly Consequences of Insufficient Sleep
A number of high-profile accidents have been linked to fatigue and poor sleep. These include the nuclear meltdowns at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger that killed all seven crew members.
Sleep deprivation also contributes to medical errors and is a major source of traffic accidents. Comedian Tracy Morgan was severely injured and a companion killed when their limousine was rear-ended by a tractor trailer whose driver had not slept in more than 24 hours (see Lifelines, Drowsy Driving Is Deadly Driving).
A joint report from the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that drowsy driving causes more than 100,000 crashes a year, 40,000 injuries, 1,550 deaths and more than $12 billion in monetary losses.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) and the Sleep Research Society recommend that adults get at least seven hours of uninterrupted sleep in a 24-hour period.
What Gets in the Way of Sleep?
There are all kinds of reasons why people don’t sleep. Technology that makes it easy to be plugged in 24/7 can be extremely disruptive. Computers, tablets and cellphones that are always nearby get in the way of winding down. In addition, their bright screens can disrupt circadian rhythms, the internal processes that influence sleep-wake cycles. Circadian rhythms can also be affected by jet lag and shift work. When these rhythms aren’t working as they should, people don’t sleep as well.
Health conditions can also affect sleep. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a disorder in which breathing repeatedly starts and stops during sleep. Loud snoring is often a symptom of OSA, but unless they have a sleeping partner who is being kept awake, people with OSA are often unaware. OSA that goes untreated increases risk for high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes. People who get seven hours of sleep but wake up feeling tired should see a sleep specialist.
Improve Your Sleep
Good sleep hygiene can help improve quality of sleep. The AASM suggests:
- Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning.
- Make sure the bedroom is quiet, dark and relaxing and kept at a comfortable temperature.
- Get a comfortable mattress and sheets, and use the bed only for sleeping and sex.
- Exercise regularly and maintain a healthy diet.
- Avoid exposure to screens or bright light prior to bedtime.
- Don’t eat a large meal before bedtime, and avoid alcohol and caffeine.
- If you don’t fall asleep after 20 minutes, get out of bed and do something relaxing before trying again.
It’s also important to read medication labels. Certain prescription and over-the-counter cold and pain medications contain ingredients like caffeine that can keep you awake. Talk to your health care provider if you are taking medications that make it difficult for you to fall asleep. It may be possible to adjust dosing times or to find alternatives.
[Janet Lubman Rathner]