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What's Causing Your Sleepiness?

Are you skimping on sleep, or could you have a sleep disorder?
WebMD Feature

Look around you: the guy nodding off on the bus, the co-worker snoozing during a dull presentation, the people with heavy eyelids lined up at the coffee shop in mid-afternoon. Like them, your job may be leaving you sleep deprived -- and you may not even realize it.

Excessive sleepiness can have serious consequences. You could doze off while waiting at a red light, for example. And not getting good sleep has been associated with high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and weight gain.

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He Slept, She Slept: Sex Differences in Sleep

Anna and her husband go to bed at the same time. That’s the only part of their sleep routine that they have in common. "We have very distinct sleep patterns and sleep issues," says Anna, 42, who asked that her last name be withheld for privacy. “My husband tends to fall asleep easily but he wakes up incredibly early. I have trouble falling asleep." The couple, who teach at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, have learned various coping strategies so that they can both get enough sleep...

Read the He Slept, She Slept: Sex Differences in Sleep article > >

"I do think that perhaps the No. 1 sleep problem in America is willful sleep limitation. People are working too hard and purposely limit themselves to six hours when they should be getting seven or eight," says Lisa Shives, MD, founder of Northshore Sleep Medicine in Evanston, Ill., and a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

Sleepiness appears to be on the rise, according to the National Sleep Foundation. In its 2009 Sleep in America poll, 20% of Americans reported that they averaged fewer than six hours of sleep per night. That’s compared to 13% in 2001.

What Causes Sleepiness?

Sleep problems stem from multiple causes: jet lag, working graveyard or rotating shifts that go against the body's natural sleep rhythms, or skimping on sleep in order to stay on top of a full-throttle schedule.

While many of us are tired from skimping on sleep, others with sleep problems may have bona fide sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, or narcolepsy. People who work graveyard or rotating shifts may have shift work sleep disorder, marked by excessive sleepiness during night work and insomnia when they try to sleep during the daytime.

Regardless of the cause, excessive sleepiness "is becoming more of a legitimate complaint," both among patients and doctors, says David G. Davila, MD, a National Sleep Foundation spokesman and board member who practices sleep medicine in Little Rock, Ark. He sees men and women who can't muster enough alertness to finish mental tasks or who struggle to stay awake while driving -- and many who doze off in his waiting room.

Some try to cope with excessive sleepiness through caffeine or stimulants, he says. "They'll come in actually complaining of insomnia because they're at Starbucks too much, and they're piling on the caffeine too late in the day. They're really responding to sleepiness, but then they end up getting secondary insomnia related to the caffeine."

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