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
It's 3 a.m. and you're staring at the green glow of your digital clock,
wondering if you'll get any shut-eye before the alarm blasts in a few short
hours. After several sleepless nights, you're feeling cranky and lethargic. Is
it safe to start taking a sleep medication?
Many people turn to sleep aids because insomnia and sleep shortage have
become commonplace in this country, leading to potentially serious
consequences. In a 2008 National Sleep Foundation poll, 29% of respondents --
"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."
What's Wrong With Poor Sleep?
Most adults need seven to eight hours of sleep per night, although some
people need more or less sleep time to be adequately rested.
Sleep woes -- not getting enough sleep or poor quality of sleep -- can have
serious consequences. "Not having enough good sleep is linked to the major
health problems of our time: hypertension, heart disease, stroke, diabetes,
weight gain, and dementia," Shives says.