Sometimes I wish I were a bear, so I could hibernate for six months. Alas, I’m only human. How much sleep do you think the average adult gets per night? A National Sleep Foundation poll of 1000 adults found that 1/3 get less than 7 hours per night and only 1/3 are getting the recommended 8 hours per night. John Shepard, medical director of the Mayo Clinic Sleep Disorders Center, says that most adults need between 7 ½ and 8 ½ hours of sleep per night, teens need 9 hours and 15 minutes, and small children need more.
In 1910, the average adult got nine hours of sleep per night, because without electricity, people generally went to sleep when darkness fell. Now we just flip on the lights and keep working. Americans tend to under-sleep by choice, burning the candle at both ends due to hectic work and family schedules. We believe we can have more time for work and family by allowing ourselves less time for sleep. However, many of us do snooze—at work, driving to and from work—in a state of stupefied sleepiness.
The poll actually also showed that 85% of people would sleep more, if they were convinced it would contribute to a happier life. Here are some statistics to convince you:
• The Foundation reported that drowsy workers are costing U.S. employers an estimated $18 billion annually in lost productivity. If you add in errors, damage, and health consequences, the costs are even higher.
• Overall, the quality of work, the amount of work, and your concentration EACH decline by 30% when you’re sleepy.
• A lack of sleep affects your personal life too. Among those having sleep problems, 77 percent also said they had less marital satisfaction. 38% of married respondents said they have intimate relations with their spouse less than once a week because of fatigue and lack of time.
• Studies show that sleepiness impairs memory, reaction time, and alertness. Tired people are more moody, less patient with others, and less interactive in relationships.
• Too little sleep also suppresses your immune function, which leads to increased infection and illnesses.
• Getting inadequate sleep also causes problems similar to drinking too much alcohol. Nodding off at work isn’t just unproductive; it can be disastrous. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that sleepy drivers cause at least 200,000 crashes each year. The 1989 Exxon Valdez Alaskan oil spill was reportedly due at least in part to the severe fatigue of the tanker’s sleep-deprived third mate. The Challenger accident, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island accidents were also due to worker fatigue. In rats, prolonged sleep deprivation resulted in death. (Although we haven’t had any volunteers for that study in adults yet!)
The bottom line is that sleeping well is not a luxury…it’s a necessity.
The Mayo clinic defines an adequate amount of sleep as whatever produces daytime alertness and a feeling of well-being. You shouldn’t need an alarm clock to wake you up if you are getting enough sleep. So let’s test your level of sleep deprivation!
Answer the following questions “yes” or “no”:
1. Do you get sleepy while at your desk during the day?
2. Do you consistently get grumpy or feel low?
3. Do you need an alarm clock to wake you up in the morning?
4. Do you hit an afternoon “slump” after you eat?
5. If you were a passenger in a car for an hour during the day, would you nod off if you didn’t take a break?
6. Would you fall asleep if you sat quietly and read during the day?
7. Are you likely to doze off while watching TV during the day?
8. Do you get fewer than six hours of sleep at night?
Total number of “yes” answers: _______
Check your score to see how sleepy you are:
1 – 3 Congratulations, you are getting enough sleep!
4 – 5 You are sleep deprived.
6 and up Seek the advice of a sleep specialist!
If your score is 6 or higher, you might want to consider having your primary care physician order an oximetry test on you, just to rule out a more serious problem. If your score is moderate and shows you’re simply not sleeping enough, here are some ideas to help you sleep better:
Slow your pace. Avoid activities that stimulate you, such as fast video games, arguing with a spouse, or working out, at least an hour before bedtime, preferably more. With all its sounds, lights, and color, TV-watching can be especially stimulating. Yes, you may get drowsy and doze off in front of the television, but you’ll have to wake again to settle into a sleeping position, and then experience wakefulness during the night. Your body may be tired, but your brain waves are very active after watching television. Instead, select non-stimulating activities such as light reading, ironing, doing dishes, taking a bath, or writing letters for at least one hour before bedtime.
Clear your mind. Write down everything you’re thinking about that must be done the next day. Lying in bed awake with all those reminders running through your head will prevent you from sleeping soundly. If you’re stewing over an issue with someone, journal or write a draft email but don’t send it. (In fact, you’re safest not to even put their email address in the “to” field so your trigger-happy finger doesn’t accidentally go off.) Waiting 24 hours after you’ve vented on paper will give you a better perspective, and you’ll probably be glad you put time between your writing and sending that message. The bonus? You were able to get to sleep.
Train your brain. I read an article about how some babies sleep better when exposed to the sound of a heartbeat or another “white” noise. I figured it couldn’t hurt to try it on adults, too. So for Christmas last year, I bought John a sound machine. He played with the different noises and selected the “ocean” sound, with waves crashing on the shore. From December 25 until January 3, he played this sound while drifting off to sleep. On January 3, we went on vacation to Cancun, Mexico, with the family and were lucky enough to get an Oceanside room. John didn’t even need his sound machine! For someone who doesn’t usually sleep well in hotels, I was so amazed how deeply and long he slept. He was always the last one to get up in the morning. I think that Cancun vacation may well be one of his favorites, simply because he got such great sleep!
Form good sleep habits. When you lie down, can you fall asleep within a matter of minutes? No? Then you might not have the right mental association to your bed. When you get in your bed, your brain should tell your body to shut down and go to sleep. Unfortunately, many people crawl into bed and don’t put their heads on the pillow. They eat. They watch television. They read. They do paperwork. They have conversations with their significant other. They worry. As a result, these associations encourage wakefulness, and the brain soon disassociates the bed with sleep. When you finally tell it, “Okay, I’m serious now,” it takes longer to get the message. Only use your bed for sleeping and intimate relations with your significant other. Eating, watching television, reading, working on your computer, and any other activity should be done out of bed, preferably in a completely different room. Your bedroom should be your sleeping sanctuary—a place where your mind automatically goes to sleep. You’re better off doing something relaxing an hour before bedtime, such as a warm bath, aromatherapy, knitting, petting your cat, doing dishes, or reading. If you wake up during the night and don’t fall back to sleep in 15 minutes, get up. Write down everything you’re thinking about. Then try to sleep again 15 minutes later. If don’t get up, over time your body will adjust to tossing and turning instead of sleeping.
Eat and drink to sleep. Elizabeth L. Vliet, M.D., author of “It’s my Ovaries, Stupid!” says to take 200 to 400 mg of magnesium and 500 mg of calcium thirty to sixty minutes before bedtime to help your body prepare for sleep. “Studies show that your brain needs adequate levels of these vitamins, along with optimal levels of estradiol, in order to regular sleep,” says Vliet. Avoid eating a large meal just before bedtime; however, don’t go to bed ravenous—it’s about balance—have a light snack if you must. Breus says “milk, tuna, halibut, pumpkin, artichokes, avocados, almonds, eggs, peaches, walnuts, apricots, oats, asparagus, potatoes, and bananas” all promote good sleep. Also watch the alcohol before bedtime. Alcohol can indeed make you sleepy, but it is considered a stimulant and will cause wakeful sleep, nightmares, sweats, and headaches as your body clears it from your system. Try warm milk instead or even a Benadryl if you’re desperate. If you want to avoid midnight trips to the bathroom, stop drinking large amounts early in the evening. I go to bed at 10:00, and I stop drinking at 7:00. If I’m thirsty, I take a small sip of water.
Record your “can’t miss” late night shows. I often hear this excuse for staying up late: “I love the Jay Leno Show, and it’s on late.” That’s no reason to not go to bed on time. Open your user’s manual and finally figure out how to program your VCR to record your favorite shows. Or subscribe to DirectTV, use Tivo, or record to DVD. Then you can watch them on your own time, not when it’s time to sleep (and skip through the commercials to save time).
Protect your sleep when you travel. If you are traveling to a location with drastic time zone differences, try resetting your body clock several days in advance. Wake up, eat, and go to bed earlier or later, depending upon your goal, until you approximate the day-night pattern you’ll be adapting at your destination. Some globe-trotters have told me they even reset their watches to the destination time, so they can make the psychological switch as well. Try to get additional sleep before leaving and during your flight. Avoid alcohol (two alcoholic drinks consumed in a pressurized cabin have the physical effect of four drinks at sea level), caffeine, and high-calorie meals. Try to arrive a day earlier than necessary, so your brain can make adjustments before you’re expected to be coherent. In general, allow for about a day on either end to allow your body to adjust.
When I take an informal poll during a seminar and ask participants if they think daytime sleepiness is normal, about 75 percent agree. Most people also believe that feeling sleepy in the afternoon is normal. However, sleep experts tell us that daytime sleepiness is NOT normal if you’re getting the correct amount of sleep for your needs. When people start nodding off, they blame the heavy meal they just ate, the stuffy air in the room, or the boring movie they were watching. These things don’t cause sleepiness; they just unmask it. Many people don’t make the connection between the amount of sleep they get at night and how drowsy they feel during the day. Hopefully, with these tips, you’ll get better sleep at night and will be more productive the next day.