For some people, catching Zs is harder than catching a glimpse of the Loch Ness monster. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that experts recommend 7-9 hours of sleep for adults, and yet 30 percent of Americans get six hours of sleep or less. In other words, America’s sleep deficit is about as big as the country’s financial deficit.
“It seems too obvious to state, but the most common sign that someone is not getting enough sleep is that they are sleepy during the day,” says Patty Tucker, a sleep medicine specialist who has worked with thousands of patients at an American Academy of Sleep Medicine-accredited sleep disorders center. “Falling asleep or even nodding off briefly when you don’t intend to is a sure sign of excessive daytime sleepiness,” she says.
Other signs can be less visible. “Another less obvious sign of sleep deprivation is emotional fragility,” reports Tucker. “Someone who feels overwhelmed, is too quick to react, is overly sensitive or is generally irritable may just need more sleep.”
But it’s about more than just yawning awkwardly at your work colleague or nodding off during lunch. Sleep deficits create precarious, physical hazards. In fact, the CDC notes that approximately 24 million Americans experience difficulties with driving due to their lack of sufficient sleep. Meanwhile, an estimated 7.2 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 35 actually report that they have occasionally fallen asleep while at the wheel. “The most dangerous result of sleep deprivation is probably death from car crashes,” warns Tucker. “More than 1,500 people are killed in drowsy-driving accidents every year.”
And the list goes on and on, like a bad nightmare. “Sleep deprivation leads to problems from head to toe,” says Tucker. “Fuzzy thinking, impaired memory, depressed immune function, increased risk of heart disease and diabetes, decreased human growth hormone and testosterone levels are all linked to sleep deprivation.”
Lack of sleep can even cause cancer. “Certain cancers are more prevalent among night shift workers who typically get less sleep than those on the day shift,” notes Tucker. For example, a 2001 study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that breast cancer risks go up the more hours someone works on a graveyard shift.
Thankfully, there’s hope. With the right pre-sleep strategies, and a couple changes to your diet, you can start catching enough Zs to fill a menagerie.
Six Steps to Satisfactory Sleep (as recommended by the National Sleep Foundation)
- Go to bed at the same time every night, and don’t sleep in. “Keep a regular schedule to let your body get into a good rhythm of sleeping and waking,” suggests Tucker.
- Establish a bedtime routine. “Don’t expect to be able to go from 60 to zero in 4.3 seconds,” warns Tucker. “Create some separation between your active day life and your quiet sleep life. Bedtime rituals, just like we had when we were kids, is a good way to prepare for reliable sleep.”
- Keep your room dark and cool. “Shut down the electronics and dim the lights at least an hour before you want to sleep,” says Tucker.
- Be cautious with sedatives and antihistamine-based sleep aids. Approximately 18 percent of people use some sort of medication to help themselves fall asleep, some researchers estimate. “It is very common, and I made the same mistake before learning any better, to recommend antihistamines like Benadryl (diphenhydramine) as a sleep aid,” says Tucker. “The sleep that ensues is not normal nor complete. Benadryl disrupts the sleep cycles and decreases REM sleep. It can also leave you feeling groggy in the morning. Unfortunately, most over-the-counter sleep medications contain some sort of antihistamine.”
- Don’t drink yourself to sleep, a practice that 13 percent of Americans do every night, according to a study in the Journal of Sleep Research & Sleep Medicine. “Alcohol, considered a ‘nightcap’ by many, is a common sleep stealer and a poor choice before lights out,” warns Tucker.
- Run from that Red Bull. A 2000 study in the Psychopharmacology medical journal pointed out the obvious: Caffeine from any source, including coffee and tea, has a “negative effect on sleep onset, sleep time and sleep quality.” To be safe, also stay away from any type of stimulating food or beverage. “Chocolate, sugar and even ginger can be stimulating for some,” says Tucker.
If all else fails, write a sleep journal or diary and visit a sleep specialist like Tucker. Such experts can help you work through any potential underlying issues that may be affecting your sleep, including serious maladies such as sleep apnea.
“Snoring stories get the biggest laughs, though snoring can be a sign of a very serious condition called obstructive sleep apnea,” says Tucker. She recalls one of her favorite patient stories — a man named Ted who went on a hunting trip with several buddies:
They were staying in a dormitory-style hunting lodge in Montana and after the first night everyone except Ted turned up at breakfast pretty bleary-eyed. Turned out Ted had kept them all awake with his heroic snoring that lasted all night long.
The next night, determined they would not spend a second sleepless night, the buddies waited quietly until Ted was sound asleep. Together, they carefully picked up his bunk and carried it out the door, down the steps and deposited it under the stars several yards from the bunk house. That night they all got their beauty rest and Ted woke the next morning in the meadow with a cow moose sniffing at his hair!
Ted was in my office about his ‘snoring problem’ the very next week. Turned out he did in fact have sleep apnea, but we fixed him up and he never had to sleep with the wildlife again!
Don’t keep yourself up, and don’t drive your friends crazy, with your sleep problems. For more information, visit one of the helpful links below:
National Sleep Foundation: Find a Specialist
Patty Tucker at SleepRestLive.com
Canadian Sleep Society: Find a Centre