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The Toll of Sleep Loss in America

Sleep loss is taking a toll on our physical and emotional health, and on our nation's highways.

The Dangers of Drowsiness continued...

Several major disasters have been linked in part with too little sleep in the workplace: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and the Exxon Valdez.

Nearly one-third of all respondents to the 2008 Sleep in America poll reported that they have driven drowsy at least once per month during the past year. Of those who drive, more than one-third had nodded off or fallen asleep while driving a vehicle. And 2% had an accident or near accident due to drowsiness while driving.

"We are very concerned that shift workers are on the highway, at increased risk for car wrecks," says Barbara Phillips, MD, sleep clinic director at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. "Many are also in safety-sensitive positions, like health care workers and pilots."

Indeed, doctors, nurses, and other health professionals are especially vulnerable to the effects of sleep loss - and patient safety may suffer because of it. Studies on performance of sleep-deprived doctors have suggested that they may be prone to more errors on routine, repetitive tasks - and also on tasks that require close attention for long periods. However, those same studies show that, in times of crisis or unusual situations, doctors may be able to rise to the occasion and function well.

Sleep-deprived drivers are just as dangerous as drunk drivers, Kaplan says. In one study, people who drove after being awake for 17 to 19 hours performed worse than those who had a blood alcohol level of .05%. (A blood alcohol level of .08% is considered legally intoxicated in many states.)

Kaplan is a big advocate of napping. "Fifteen or 20 minutes may be all you need," he tells WebMD. "One strategy for truck drivers is to take a full cup of coffee, then immediately follow with a 30-minute nap. Caffeine doesn't take effect for about 30 minutes, so you get the benefit of both."

Tips on Getting a Good Night's Sleep

If you're having trouble sleeping, there are many solutions, say sleep experts. Turning off the computer or TV earlier is one simple solution. But other lifestyle issues might be hindering sleep. Sleep specialists advise following good sleep hygiene, including cutting back on caffeine and alcohol. They also advise developing a calming ritual before bedtime - one that helps you break from the day's tensions, and doesn't involve eating, exercise, or watching TV.

Beyond that, sleep medications and behavioral treatments can be effective treatment for chronic insomnia. Behavioral therapy involves changing your negative thoughts and expectations that may worsen your insomnia. Medications can help you break the pattern of insomnia.

"We now have very effective sleep medications," Mahowald tells WebMD. "Many patients have taken these sleep medications for decades without any dependence or tolerance problems. If they need the drugs, they take the drugs. If they don't need them, they don't take them."

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