“Sleepless in America”

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Have you seen the National Geographic Channel’s attention to the sleep deprivation epidemic with its Sleepless in America special?

The documentary, which was trending on Twitter (#SleeplessinAmerica), is a collaboration between @NatGeo, the National Institutes of Health, and The Public Goods Projects.

The subject of sleep is an important issue that’s largely been ignored in public discourse – but just because people often don’t talk about it – doesn’t mean they don’t have experience with sleep problems.

Sleep disorders such as insomnia and sleep apnea, as well as, mental illnesses like PTSD and depression — all of which disrupt sleep — are incredibly common. “Sleepless in America” reports that 40 percent of Americans are sleep deprived. Also, that many of us sleep less than five hours per night (experts recommend eight). The documentary aims to educate us about the critical importance of sleep, and the many problems associated with sleeplessness.

Sleep: A Deeply Ingrained Biological Need

sleep for healthy brain functionIn general, experts recommend that adults get around 8 hours of sleep per night. But for most of us, that just doesn’t seem realistic when there’s so much to do!

In fact, a 2009 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that a third of Americans tend to get less than seven hours of sleep each night. This is troubling statistics that can lead to serious consequences.

While we don’t fully understand the specifics of why we sleep, we do know that sleep is a deeply ingrained biological need, according to “Sleepless in America.”

The act of sleeping runs the gamut across all species of animals. Thus suggesting that sleep gives us something critical.

Sleep appears to be a necessary time for the body to heal and the brain to process and re-energize. Just a handful of things that we need sleep for include:

  • The release of growth hormone in young people

  • Repair of cellular damage from stress and everyday “wear and tear”

  • Elimination of waste products in brain nerve cells (neurons), which become energy-depleted and can malfunction from lack of sleep

  • Regulation of mood, as well as emotional and social functioning

Armed with an array of studies, Sleepless in America dives into the dangers of not getting enough rest. The most notable include:

  • Obesity/weight problems

    overweight manThose who sleep less than 6 hours per night must deal with hormone disruption. That affects appetite regulation and causes you to eat more, and to crave sweet and fatty foods. Sleep-deprived individuals tend to have higher BMIs on average than those who get their 8 hours.

    If you’re a middle-aged or older adult who gets less than 6 of sleep at night, you are more likely to develop Type II diabetes. The more sleep you miss out on, the more that risk goes up.

  • Heart disease/hypertension

    Those who suffer from insomnia are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, heart attacks, heart failure, and strokes.

  • Immune system functioning

    Your immune system relies on sleep for it to generate enough antibodies and immune cells to keep you healthy.

    Sleep deprivation seriously weakens the immune system, leaving you vulnerable to viruses and other illness.

  • Mental health problems

    Sleep regulates the brain chemicals epinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. All of which are important to mental health.

    Sleep deprivation/insomnia and mental health issues typically go hand-in-hand, and create a vicious cycle.

  • Risk of Alzheimer’s disease

    man with alzheimer's disease at doctors officeA recent study shows that elderly men who have disturbed sleep develop Alzheimer’s at higher rates than those who sleep well.

    Some scientists believe that this is related to a type of plaque that builds up in the brain with sleeplessness. Plaque that has been found in high levels in Alzheimer’s patients.

  • Risk of cancer

    We’ve already pointed out that lack of sleep harms the immune system and can cause you to get sick more often. However, sleep fragmentation – disrupted sleep – can also lead to higher risk of developing cancer.

  • Risk of death

    Studies have shown that those with insomnia and chronic sleep deprivation (less than 6 hours per night) have a greater chance of dying in a specific time frame than those who get enough rest.

  • Human-caused fatalities

    woman in a car crashSleep deprivation has been implicated as playing a part in many man-made disasters. Two major ones: the Exxon-Valdez oil spill and the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster. While this is quite terrifying, does it hit closer to home to learn that poor sleep is also one of the leading causes of fatal car crashes?

    Sleep deprivation affects your alertness, reaction time, and decision-making abilities. Getting behind the wheel while tired is as dangerous as drinking and driving!

Sleepless in America

As a nation, we can’t afford to keep depriving ourselves of sleep.

Sleep problems are costing us our health, our emotional well-being, and our productivity. This should be concerning not only to individuals, but to employers too, as those things all affect the bottom line.

“Sleepless in America” highlights the current discussion taking place about high school starting times. Noting that many high schools start before 8 a.m., even though teenagers are biologically programmed to stay up late and sleep late.

Teenagers are not the only ones negatively impacted by the discord between biological sleep cycles and the reality of everyday life.

Studies have shown that not all adults have the same natural sleep cycles, either. Some people (about 10%) are naturally “early birds”, others (about 20%) are naturally “night owls.” While most people fall somewhere in between on the spectrum.

In the future, if we’re to address the sleep deprivation epidemic in a real way, we will need to examine how our school and work environments – and society in general – are structured. Also, what kind of accommodations might be made so that everyone can be as healthy as possible and perform at their personal best.

If you haven’t yet seen “Sleepless in America,” you can check it out online here.

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