Sleepless in America


4 min read

Wake up, America! Most of you are not getting enough sleep. According to a recent survey by the National Sleep Foundation, 40 percent of adults are so sleepy during the day it interferes with their daily activities; 62 percent reported feeling drowsy while driving; and 27 percent dozed off while driving during the past year.

And it's not just the big people who aren't meeting their nightly sleep requirements: Sixty percent of children under the age of 18 complained of daytime tiredness last year, and 15 percent reported falling asleep at school.

In the worst cases, lack of sleep -- which impairs functions such as memory, reaction time, and alertness -- can have serious, even deadly results. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drowsy drivers cause at least 100,000 crashes annually. For others, sleepiness doesn't have such dire consequences, but it does make its mark: Tired people aren't as productive at work or school, or as effective at parenting and other interpersonal relationships. They're also at risk for increased health problems. A recent study cited by the National Sleep Foundation showed that people with chronic insomnia are more at risk for several kinds of psychiatric problems and make greater use of healthcare services.

Kierstan Boyd of the National Sleep Foundation says busy lives and a failure to appreciate the importance of sleep are part of the problem. "People aren't making sleep a priority. They try to cram too much into their days. They're getting up earlier and doing more before going to work or staying up later."

Another problem, says Boyd, is sleep disruption, or frequent waking during the night. The National Center on Sleep Disorders Research estimates that as many as 70 million Americans may suffer from disruptive sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea (pauses in breathing or gasping for air that wakes you), restless legs, or insomnia. Stress, medication, and environment (such as room temperature and noise level) also play a big part in determining your sleep success.

Experts recommend eight hours of sleep a night, but that's an average. Teens, for example, need nine to 10 hours. Aging also causes some shifts in sleep patterns. The important thing is to get the amount you need -- every night. Sleep loss is cumulative, and it can't be "made up."

So how do you go about increasing your shuteye? Start by following the tips below. If these don't work, you may have a sleep disorder and should consult your doctor.

  • Eliminate environmental noise, like that of a TV set. Invest in a "white noise" machine, if necessary, to drown out traffic sounds or loud neighbors.
  • Exercise regularly, but at least three to four hours before you go to bed. Vigorous exercise causes your internal body temperature to rise and can delay sleep if done in the hours just before bedtime.
  • "Power naps" can stave off drowsiness, if necessary (when you're on the road, for example). But naps can also disrupt nighttime sleep. If you must nap, do so for no longer than 30 minutes in the late afternoon.
  • Use your bed only for sleep (and sex), not for working, reading or TV viewing. Making your bed a sleep-only zone conditions your body to know that bed equals sleep.
  • Stop drinking caffeine at least six hours before bedtime. Nicotine is also a stimulant and should be avoided close to bedtime. And alcohol may help you get to sleep, but it causes fragmented sleep, ultimately making you drowsier the next day.
  • Make sure your bedroom is comfortable -- quiet, dark, and not too warm.
  • Establish a regular waking time, even on the weekends.
  • Develop routines to cue your body that it's sleep time -- a warm bath, a cup of decaffeinated tea or a glass of warm milk, listening to music or reading.
  • Don't try too hard. If you don't fall asleep within 20 minutes, get up and do something relaxing until you feel sleepy.

1. Taking longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep.

2. Awakening frequently during the night and not being able to get back to sleep.

3. Waking up feeling groggy.

4. Having trouble staying awake during nonstimulating events.

5. Having difficulty remembering things.