Humans spend about one-third of their lives doing it, yet sleep remains misunderstood and underappreciated for its role in keeping us healthy and productive.
While age and other factors are important in figuring how much sleep each individual needs, scientific studies have proven that if we don’t get enough of it, bad things can happen. While some may view sleep as unproductive downtime, researchers say that sleep is actually linked to muscle repair, memory consolidation and hormone regulation linked to growth and appetite. Sleep contributes to a healthy immune system and enables us to concentrate, make appropriate decisions and actively engage in school and work activities.
“Research shows that lack of sleep can hamper our ability to be productive during waking hours, affecting mood, memory and performance of mental and physical tasks,” says Jana Lilyerd, MSN NP-C at Appleton Area Health Services. “Getting inadequate sleep can lead to serious health problems and jeopardize the safety of the people around you. Car accidents and workplace injuries are caused by people who are not alert or, in some cases, actually falling asleep without even being aware of doing so.”
In addition to a greater risk of accidents, the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) reports that lack of sleep is linked to an increased likelihood of other potentially serious mental and physical issues, including:
- Obesity and higher body mass index
- Diabetes, heart problems and high blood pressure
- Psychiatric conditions, including depression and substance abuse
- Difficulty paying attention, remembering information and reacting appropriately
The NSF recommends that healthy adults sleep seven to nine hours out of each 24-hour period. Babies and young children need more sleep, from 10 hours up to 18 hours for newborns through two-months-old. The target for teens is a little more than eight to nine hours. Generally, the amount of sleep recommended declines from birth into adulthood.
However, research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that some 40.6 million workers report sleeping six or fewer hours on average in a 24-hour period. This is defined as “short sleep duration” — what we often call sleep deprivation. That’s 30 percent of civilian employed adults. The practice is even more prevalent among people who work night shifts. About 44 percent of these workers, some 2.2 million people, get less than the recommended amount of sleep. And studies over time indicate that Americans are getting less sleep than suggested by medical professionals.
The federal National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) are developing evidence-based training programs on sleep and work hours to address the problem in jobs where sleep deprivation is of most concern. Studies show that managers and employees who work in manufacturing, mining, nursing, retail and trucking are most likely to report short sleep duration. Indeed, the NSF’s 2012 Sleep in America poll found some startling statistics related to transportation workers. In that poll one in five pilots admitted they had made a serious error due to sleepiness, and one in six train operators and truck drivers reported a “near miss” because of it.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that driver fatigue leads to about 100,000 vehicle accidents each year. These accidents result in an estimated 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injuries and monetary losses of $12.5 billion. And these figures probably don’t tell the full story, since it’s often difficult to determine if sleepiness or fatigue is a contributing factor when a crash occurs.
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety estimates that about one in six deadly vehicle crashes involves a drowsy driver. Young people ages 16 to 24 are most at risk, with one in seven licensed drivers in that age group reporting they have nodded off behind the wheel at least once during the past year.
Sleep problems can be the result of medical conditions, particularly those that cause discomfort, pain and breathing difficulties. “Some 50 million to 70 million adults in the United States experience chronic sleep disorders, according to the CDC,” states Pat Cooper, vice president of clinical operations for Quorum Health Resources (QHR).
If you consistently experience morning sleepiness, daytime fatigue or difficulty falling asleep, a thorough physical examination is needed to rule out medical problems. For many people, however, it’s the long to-do list and late nights at the office that keep us from getting the sleep we need. Following these simple steps can help you and other family members learn to relax and welcome a rejuvenating night’s sleep:
- Try to go to sleep and wake on a consistent schedule, even on weekends
- Create a relaxing bedtime routine for the hour before you expect to fall asleep
- Make your sleep environment dark, quiet, comfortable and cool
- Sleep on a comfortable mattress and pillow
- Avoid working, watching television and similar activities in bed
- Finish eating or snacking two to three hours before you go to sleep
- Exercise regularly, but not within a few hours of settling down to sleep
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine before bedtime, and quit smoking altogether
This article provided courtesy of Appleton Area Health Services and Quorum Health Resources, LLC (“QHR”).