The glowing screens of electronic devices cry out for attention in the wee hours, almost as much as small children do. Shift work disrupts a body’s natural rhythm. That triple espresso needed to get through the afternoon also has us staring at the ceiling in the middle of the night.
They’re all culprits in an alarming trend. We simply don’t get enough sleep. And it’s not just new parents who shuffle around tired; more than a third of Americans reported poor or only fair sleep quality in the most recent sleep index conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, and a Gallup poll found that 40 percent of Americans reported getting 6 hours of sleep or less per night.
“You think back to 20 or 30 years ago when people just had a TV or even a radio, and it wasn’t on all night long,” says Jennifer Mackenzie, a registered sleep technologist who coordinates the sleep lab at East Cooper Medical Center. “I’m at the age when I remember they’d have the flag come on at midnight, so it’s not like you were sitting up all hours with devices.”
While there are legitimate medical reasons why some people don’t get enough sleep, environmental factors also play a major role. Small children struggling to sleep through the night, too many screens in the bedroom, too much caffeine in the late afternoon, eating late and the nature of 24/7 communication can all impede our ability to nod off.
“There’s been a feeling in our society that sleep is a waste of time, that we could be doing other things, or get more accomplished,” says Dr. Robert Vorona of the sleep medicine program at the Medical University of South Carolina. “What’s being very clearly shown in sleep medicine by the research is just how critical sleep is to our function.”
Sleeplessness and health
Although the amount of sleep needed varies as we age, the gold standard for adults remains 7 to 9 hours per night. When we don’t get it, especially for several nights in a row, the immediate effects can be evident in headaches, fogginess and an inability to concentrate.
“Our ability to perform is impaired,” Vorona says. “We may not be able to do our job. We may not be able to drive safely. We may not be able to do things at home as well. Our mood can suffer. Our ability to learn can suffer.”
But the problems can go deeper. Sleep allows our body “to be at rest and fix itself from the day,” Mackenzie says. Sleep allows hormones to level out, that’s why lack of sleep is often tied to obesity. People who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, heart disease and suppressed immune systems.
A National Institutes of Health study even found a link between sleep deprivation and Alzheimer’s disease, with sleep helping to clear away the beta-amyloid proteins in the brain associated with disease. “Missing just one night of sleep is associated with an increasing beta-amyloid protein in the brain,” Vorona says.
Tips for parents
Getting a full night’s sleep plays a role not just in how well you feel the next morning but in your long-term health. So what are new parents to do when their baby is waking up every 2 hours for a feeding, in the depths of sleep regression or teething?
The good news is all those are temporary, though that’s of little solace to a parent up at 3 a.m. for the third night in a row. The first step is to enact a routine, not just for baby, but also Mom and Dad.
“The one thing we really tell people is, they need to set a schedule,” Mackenzie says. “You have to force yourself to stay on a schedule, and if you have children, you want them to be on a schedule, too. We’ve had kids who’ve come in because they’re fidgety in class, and a lot of times it can be an ADHD issue, but a lot of times it’s because they’re tired and trying to stay awake. So for the parents and the children, they need to set a time when the kids go to bed and give the parents some downtime, and then they need to turn off the lights and go to bed, too.”
As for the child’s middle-of-the-night wake-ups, there needs to be a team effort between spouses or partners. “If you’ve had a couple of days without sufficient sleep, and you're fortunate enough to have a spouse or partner who can take the lead on certain days so you can get some catch-up sleep, that can help you,” Vorona says. “Maybe you can’t get but 5 or 6 hours at night, but when baby goes to sleep, if you're not working, you can take a nap.”
Apnea warning signs
There are times, though, when tactics aren’t enough. If tiredness lingers throughout the day and snoring persists at night, it might be time to consult a physician, especially if a spouse or partner has noticed the breathing of their significant other starting and stopping, the hallmark of obstructive sleep apnea.
Obstructive sleep apnea, caused by relaxed throat muscles, can cause serious problems like diabetes and high blood pressure. Treatment may include a night in a sleep lab, where a patient reports about an hour before his or her usual bedtime, is outfitted with sensors to track vital signs and monitored overnight by a technician in a nearby room. The patient usually sleeps well enough for diagnosis to be made.
But while sleep apnea, insomnia, narcolepsy and restless leg syndrome are all valid medical conditions that can rob someone of sleep, more often the problem lies at home: in a routine, in too much caffeine or in a glowing electronic screen.
“Even though there are 25 million Americans who have obstructive sleep apnea,” Vorona says, “the most likely reason we’re sleepy is we just don't get enough sleep.”