Sleepless in America

February 12th, 2013 posted by Joan Borysenko Ph.D.

by Joan Borysenko

If you don’t get enough sleep, it’s hard to be kind, keep your priorities straight, and just keep on keeping on. Yet, in a 24/7 society where you can order everything from underwear to tents from mail-order houses in the middle of the night, sleeplessness is becoming endemic. It’s been cited as the nation’s number-one health problem. We’re sleeping, according to the experts, 20 percent less than our peers did a hundred years ago. Busy people, say the researchers, are apt to scrounge more time for work by sleeping less. I’ve done that when big deadlines loomed, and managed pretty well for a couple of days… but then I hit the wall. I have friends who actually boast about how little they sleep. It gives them a perverse kind of pride: “See how busy I am? I must really be important.” Maybe. But I know that both their work and their families suffer when sleep is sacrificed to the god of commerce. Their lives are shortened as well. Those who sleep less than six hours a night die sooner than those getting seven hours or more.

The Cost of Sleeplessness

According to a survey by the National Sleep Foundation in Washington, D.C., 40 percent of Americans are so drowsy during the day that they can’t do their work effectively. I’m always amazed that when I read books on balance or efficiency, sleep is so rarely mentioned. Without enough of it, all the organizational tips in the world are essentially useless. Getting rid of clutter or freezing casseroles for next week’s dinners are low priorities when you’re dozing off in your soup, as the senior President Bush once did on a state visit to Japan. // A study published in the British Journal of Occupational Health and Environmental Medicine reported that the effects of sleep deprivation are similar to being drunk. Getting less than six hours of sleep can affect memory, coordination, reaction time, and judgment. Drivers who had been awake for 17 to 19 hours performed worse than people whose blood alcohol levels were 0.05 percent, which qualifies you as a drunk driver in most European countries. In America, 62 percent of those polled reported feeling drowsy sometimes when driving, and 27 percent actually admitted to dozing off behind the wheel sometime in the year they were polled. It’s no wonder that 100,000 car crashes annually are attributed to fatigue. If all of those statistics still aren’t enough to get you to make sleep a priority, consider this fact: Sleep loss makes you fat. It leads to glucose intolerance, increased appetite, and poor metabolism. Those changes also increase your risk of developing Type II, or non-insulin dependent, diabetes.

How Much Sleep Is Enough?

How much sleep do you need? Enough, say the experts, so that you feel rested the next day. Thomas Edison, in spite of the fact that he invented the light bulb, slept ten hours a day-six hours at night and a couple of two-hour naps. I need about seven hours of sleep to feel rested, but up until the onset of menopause, I needed eight or nine. And most people need somewhere between seven to nine hours to function optimally. The problem is that many of us make sleep a low priority, mistakenly believing that six hours are enough, or thinking that we can make up for lost sleep over the weekend. We can’t. Lost is lost, and the effects of sleep deprivation are cumulative. Not surprisingly, women complain of drowsiness and fatigue more often than men do. Women still do the overwhelming majority of housework and child-care duties, even when they’re married and both they and their husband work outside the home. Women with children under the age of 18 get the least sleep of anyone. Any mother knows that her brain comes equipped with an intuitive beeper that goes off at night when her children stir. Feeding and calming babies, responding to older kids who wake up in the night, not to mention waiting up for teenagers who may be out late – these can seriously cut into valuable sleep time. On the average, adults with kids sleep 6.7 hours a night compared to their childless peers who average 7.2 hours.

How Can I Get More Sleep?

There are numerous reasons why people don’t get enough sleep. Sleep clinics are popping up in cities all over the country, and a major study showed that an eight-week sleep program was more effective in curing insomnia than sleeping pills. So what do these sleep clinics teach? Although the curricula vary, stress reduction and relaxation skills are major components. Learning how to come back to your center allows you to let go of obsessive thoughts, reduce muscle tension, and come into the present moment so that sleep comes naturally. Common sense can also help you sleep. Eliminating stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine is an obvious strategy. But watching television and even reading can also act as stimulants. If you’re using your bed as an office, give it up. Working, eating, and any activities other than sleeping and having sex in your bed can create a chronic pattern of sleeplessness. And naps, while rejuvenating, need to be limited to 30 minutes or less. When I ran a stress-disorders clinic, my suggestion was for patients to get into bed, say their prayers (if that was part of their practice), then do a progressive muscle-relaxation exercise, starting with the muscles of the head and working down to the feet. If they were still awake at the end of the relaxation, it was a perfect time to meditate. The experts agree, though, that if you can’t fall asleep within 20 minutes, it’s best to get up and do something relaxing, like taking a hot bath or drinking a glass of herbal tea or warm milk. Some people fall asleep easily, but then awaken in the middle of the night or in the very early morning. Relaxation and meditation are wonderful practices for those times as well. Excerpted from Inner Peace for Busy Women; Hay House Publishers, 2003

Joan Borysenko Ph.D. (1 Posts)

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