Sleep. It’s like air and water. Without it we would die. Yet many Americans take it for granted and neglect this basic need.
As a result, we are — individually and collectively — suffering from sleep deprivation. The coronavirus pandemic, disruptions in school, work, and other routines, and the recent contentious election have all exacerbated the problems with sleep. Even so, the importance of sleep and its effect on our mental, emotional, and physical well-being should not be ignored. According to noted integrative psychiatrist and author, Henry Emmons M.D., “more than any other single factor, poor sleep is responsible for the rise in mental health disorders” in this country.
How Much Sleep Do You Get?
Do you fall asleep in under 20 minutes?
Do you sleep right through without being aware of waking in the night?
Do you wake up in the morning energized and alert?
Sleep: Ignoring it can lead to death
A 2005 survey found that more people are sleeping less than six hours a night, and sleep difficulties affect 75% of us. If you think getting by on little sleep is not a big deal, consider that drowsy driving causes: 1,000,000 crashes; 500,000 injuries; and 8,000 deaths each year in the U.S.
According to a study conducted by Harvard Medical School, just one sleepless night can impair performance as much as a blood-alcohol level of 0.10 percent, beyond the legal limit to drive. Being awake for 22 hours straight can slow your reaction time more than four drinks can, according to Harvard Medical School professor, Dr. Christopher P. Landrigan, and just like alcohol, sleepiness impairs judgment, making it harder to assess how impaired you are when you are tired. “Whether you are behind the wheel of a car, operating a power tool, or changing a light bulb, drowsiness can sneak up on you when you least expect it, causing lapses of attention and putting you at risk of hazardous errors,” says Landrigan, and “if you’re depriving yourself of sleep and you’re a police officer, doctor, nurse, or pilot, then there’s a very good chance that in the line of duty you may be exposing other folks to risk as well.”
Benefits of sleep
Although the amount of sleep varies from person to person and changes throughout the lifecycle, sleep is critical to our overall well-being. Among other things, sleep plays an important role in learning and memory, both before and after learning a new task, and helping the brain commit new information to memory.
Adequate amounts of sleep also lead to increased energy, concentration, and ability to focus, as well as better decision-making ability and the ability to manage stress. Moreover, Keeping up with sleep results in improved physical health, a stronger immune system, and may help fight cancer. The quality of our sleep has an enormous influence over our mental, emotional, and physical well-being and happiness. More so than income, exercise, sex, and social connections, concludes a study by Oxford Economics.
The amount of sleep each of us needs varies, but generally, newborns need up to 18 hours a day; preschool children (ages 3 to 5) need 11 to 13 hours of sleep per night; school-aged children (up to age 12) need 10 to 11 hours per night; adolescents need about 9 hours of sleep a night; and adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep a night.
Consequences of inadequate sleep
The consequences of inadequate sleep are both short-term and long-term and affect our emotional, mental, and physical health. The emotional effects may include fluctuations in moodiness, frustration and irritability, impulsivity, risk-taking, an increased risk of substance abuse, and a worsening of psychiatric illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, etc.
Lack of sleep can affect mental health resulting in impaired judgment and decision making; reduced ability to concentrate, learn and retain information, as well as diminished productivity and ability to multi-task. The physical effects of sleeplessness include increased daytime sleepiness, falls, serious accident or injury, as well as increased risk of health problems (obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, reduced immunity, altered endocrine function, cancer, dementia, and early mortality).
Lack of sleep creates stress and stress leads to lack of sleep
Stress wreaks havoc on our sleep. Not getting enough sleep has been found to be a risk factor for persistent psychological stress. Researchers studying 3,000 young people (17–24-year-old) found that for each hour of lost sleep, levels of psychological stress rose by 5%. If they were already suffering from anxiety, the lack of sleep often led to depression.
Even in those individuals who were not anxious to begin with, those who slept less than five hours per night tripled their odds of becoming psychologically stressed. Figuring out if sleep debt is causing anxiety, or if anxiety is keeping you awake is analogous to asking the chicken and the egg question: which came first? Ensuring you are getting enough sleep every night will keep stress at bay.
Sleep and Technology: the newest challenge
One of the newest challenges is the effect technology is having on our sleep. Electronics are a part of our lives and are here to stay. On the positive side, we can stay linked to the world at all times, from the privacy of our homes. On the negative side, exposure to the light emitted from these devices increases mental activity, promotes wakefulness, and other sleep problems. 24/7 exposure to technology (TV, computer, cell phones, tablets) has led to the absence of the natural evening reduction in light that historically signaled our brains to “wind down” for sleep. Exposure to light promotes wakefulness. Our natural cycles — that help us be alert during the day and get sleepy at night — no longer work effectively. Electronic devices emit light that trick our brains into delaying sleep and promote unwanted wakefulness.
Getting Better Sleep
The problems with sleep are not likely to get any better unless we make sleep a priority. I ask every client about their sleep habits and bed-time routine. It is easy to take sleep for granted, as something that just happens. After all, as babies we just closed our eyes and drifted off to sleep. Just as we train babies to sleep through the night, we must do the same for ourselves, especially if we have developed some bad habits. We are never too old to develop new habits, but it does take effort. There are several habits that promote good sleep. Creating a bedtime routine should include the following:
Don’t sleep anywhere but in the bedroom and use your bed as a place for sleep and sex only.
Stick to a sleep schedule. Set your alarm to wake you up at the same time every day and go to bed at the same time every day, even on weekends. (It’s a myth that the weekends can be used to catch up on sleep.)
Keep your bedroom temperature between 60—65 degrees at night.
Avoid alcohol and nicotine before bedtime. Drinking alcohol may feel relaxing but it disrupts the deep sleep our brains and bodies need. Nicotine is a stimulant, so it will not promote sleep.
I suggest keeping a sleep journal and recording the time you go to bed at night, awake in the morning, the number of times you awake during the night, and the quality of your sleep (poor, fair, good, great). Having tangible evidence of improvement — no matter how small — is reassuring and increases motivation.
A final word, just thinking about it won’t bring about change. Many people know they are not getting enough sleep but do nothing about it. I am not suggesting that change is easy but complaining and doing nothing is useless. Start with one of the suggestions above and make a plan. Then take action. Don’t try to change everything all at once; it’s too overwhelming and you’re likely to fail. Take one step at a time and build on that. Every day is a new beginning, an opportunity to try again.