Elise G. hits the alarm at 5:30 a.m. to get her kids and herself up and ready. She's an elementary teacher in Marietta, Ga., with a seasonal business on the side. When a big holiday is coming up, she's typically burning the midnight oil most nights. On weekends, she says, "I've just got to catch up on my sleep."
Multiply her story about 30 million times, and you've got a snapshot of America's sleep situation.
In each issue of WebMD the Magazine, we put five of the most-asked questions on the WebMD community boards to one of our health experts. In our January-February 2011 issue, we gave WebMD's sleep expert, Michael Breus, PhD, ABSM, the top five sleep questions -- including why we need it, how much we need, even whether or not it can really make us beautiful.
For the past few years, the Sleep in America polls -- conducted on behalf of the National Sleep Foundation - have provided a snapshot of the nation's bedroom woes. Today, about 20% of Americans report that they get less than 6 hours of sleep on average, and the number of Americans that report that they get 8 hours of more has decreased.
"It's no secret that we live in a 24/7 society," says Carl Hunt, MD, director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research at the National Institutes of Health. "There are many more opportunities to do things other than sleep - 24-hour cable TV, the Internet, email, plus long work shifts."
Indeed, how we live is affecting how we sleep, says Meir Kryger, MD, director of the Sleep Disorders Centre at St. Boniface Hospital Research Centre at the University of Manitoba. "Often, our sleep deficit is related to too much caffeine, nicotine, alcohol. Often it's related to work - stress from work, putting in long hours at work, working night shifts, working on the home computer until the second we go to sleep."
Yet there's strong evidence that lost sleep is a serious matter. The Sleep in America polls and several large studies have linked sleep deficits with poor work performance, driving accidents, relationship problems, and mood problems like anger and depression.
A growing list of health risks has been documented in recent studies, too. Heart disease, diabetes, and obesity have all been linked with chronic sleep loss.
"People just don't realize how important sleep is, and what the health consequences are of not getting a good night's sleep on a regular basis," Hunt tells WebMD. "Sleep is just as important for overall health as diet and exercise."
They also don't talk to their doctors about sleep problems, he adds. "They figure everybody's sleepy, and what can be done about it anyway. And doctors don't ask about it. Sleep disorders are severely under-diagnosed and under-treated."
The Science of Sleep
Over the past decade, researchers have learned much about the science of sleep, says Mark W. Mahowald, MD, a neurologist and director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center in Rochester.
There are nearly 100 identified sleep/wake disorders, Mahowald says. In a recent issue of the journal Nature, Mahowald outlined the latest scientific findings on these two familiar patterns: