Dreams and Reality – why sleep matters
DID YOU GET ENOUGH SLEEP LAST NIGHT?
For many Americans, the answer is no, sadly. Almost a quarter of Americans said they didn’t get enough shut-eye because they were busy “concentrating on things,” according to the Center For Disease Control and Prevention.
Our penchant for things that disturb our sleep appears to be growing worse, too, as glowing screens penetrate our pre-sleep activities, via late-night emailing, web surfing and movie streaming. The screens on smartphones, tablets and computers emit wavelengths of light that signal the brain to wake up, not rest, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital have found.
Sleep is a fundamental necessity of human life. In fact, we spend a third of our lives sleeping, but the reasons aren’t fully clear.
In fact, there are many reasons we need sleep, says Anthony Masi*, who has been a private practice sleep physician in St. Louis for the past 25 years.
Sleep is a time when our body restores damaged, worn cells and tissues, says Dr. Masi. It’s also when our brain, and other bodily systems, recharge — like a biological battery. And it’s when our minds process experiences, emotions and memories of the preceding day, he adds.
Still, considering how hard-pressed Americans are to live as efficiently as possible, it seems counterintuitive that we treat sleep as a luxury instead of a necessity, says Dr. Masi.
The practice of sleeping is as old as humankind, but the field that studies this ancient behavior is still “in its infancy compared to other medical fields like cardiology,” says Dr. Masi, pointing out that the sleep sciences only really began in the early 20th century.
“Sleep isn’t strictly for just resting your body or making you feel more alert when you’re awake,” he adds. “It’s also very involved in areas like memory consolidation and keeping the brain alive by cleaning out the buildup of waste that accumulates during our waking hours.”
We used to think of sleeping as a passive, even unproductive aspect of our lives, but it’s actually an active process that helps us perform at our best during the day. Considering its importance, there are many ways that we can improve our sleep health.
Reality Check for a Good Night’s Sleep
It’s a basic fact that sleep serves a vital function in our lives. But what really happens when you don’t prioritize sleep? And how much sleep do you really need?
Recently, The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) and Sleep Research Society (SRS) reached a consensus that recognized that while individual needs for sleep vary, most adults should get seven or more hours of sleep to avoid the health risks of inadequate sleep.
“It’s up to each person to figure out what works best for them,” says Dr. Masi.
The effects of sleep deprivation go beyond daytime drowsiness and irritability, according to Dr. Richard Rosenberg, a sleep specialist in Long Beach, Calif. and a contributor to the International Classification of Sleep Disorders and the AASM Manual for the Scoring of Sleep and Associated Events. According to a study called “Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem,” about 70 million Americans sleep poorly or not nearly enough to achieve the full physical, emotional and cognitive benefits sleep can offer.
When you’re sleep deprived, your brain can’t function properly, which affects your cognitive abilities and emotional state. And if you continue to go without enough sleep, you’re weakening your body’s immune system, increasing the risk of illness.
Many Americans don’t get enough sleep: a 2013 survey by the National Sleep Foundation said that one in five adults gets less than six hours of sleep on an average work night.
According to Dr. Rosenberg, the common practice of sleeping less to get more done, is wrongly regarded as a badge of honor — and may even be counterproductive. Think of Thomas Edison, for example, who has been called the founding father of the cult of sleep deprivation.
“Even Thomas Edison, who was famous for not sleeping much, was actually known to drift into cat naps during the day,” said Dr. Rosenberg. “Taken together, his naps and nighttime sleep probably added up to a normal amount of sleep.”
Preventing and Mitigating the Effects of Sleep Deprivation
It was the adverse effects of too-little sleep that inspired sleep technologist Kevin Asp to research sleep deprivation for more than two decades.
“I consider sleep as one of the three pillars of health: you have diet, exercise and sleep. That’s how important it is,” says Asp, chief executive of Somnosure in Anchorage, Alaska, who also owns several sleep facilities across the country.
“There’s a growing recognition of the link between lack of sleep and accidents,” he says. “Drowsy driving causes about 1 million crashes, 500,000 injuries and 8,000 deaths each year in the U.S. alone.”
Aging Changes in Sleep
“Every sleep researcher knows that the surest way to hear complaints about sleep is to ask the elderly,” says Laura Linley, owner of Advanced Sleep Management, LLC in Richardson, Texas, and President of the American Association of Sleep Technologists.
According to Dr. Rosenberg, one of the most common misconceptions he encounters from the general public is that older people need less sleep.
Older folks’ sleep cycles shift, rather than shrink. “Their circadian rhythm change in a way that makes them more prone to sleeping earlier than usual, which explains why we see the elderly have a tendency to fall asleep while watching television or have 4 p.m. Denny’s dinner specials for seniors ready for bed at 9,” says Dr. Rosenberg. “Think of it as a redistribution of your sleep schedule as an adult.”
For older folks, other factors come into play, too. More so than any other demographic, the elderly are prone to sleep disturbances, often due to illnesses or medications they’re prescribed, says Linley.
Following a Path for Better Sleep
No matter what age you are, there are scientifically proven ways to get better sleep.
“I can’t stress enough how important it is to adopt a good sleep habit, which eliminates many minor sleep problems and disorders to begin with,” said Linley.
Marietta Bibbs, who has worked in the field of sleep disorders for 37 years and now works as a manager of Neurodiagnostics and Sleep Disorders at Morton Plant Mease Healthcare in Safety Harbor, Fla., said she always advises her patients to practice better “sleep hygiene,” a key term for learned behaviors related to sleep.
“Because we live in such an interconnected world, it’s hard for some people to accept that their devices are disrupting sleep, but another study found that backlit products can actually make it harder for you to fall asleep,” she says.
But what accounts for the feeling of drowsiness and exhaustion you feel even after getting the recommended amount of shut-eye?
“That’s an indicator that you did not get enough quality sleep, which impacts your daily performance profoundly,” explains Rita Brooks, who co-edited The Fundamentals of Sleep Technology, which sleep technologists call the bible of those entering the sleep medicine field as non-physicians.
Whether “you’re a hulking offensive linemen or a third grader,” everyone needs a set wake-up time and bedtime you’re going to stick to, Brooks says.