The National Sleep Foundation conducted a Gallup Poll survey that revealed that 49% of Americans reported trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep. Publications ranging from the New York Times and USA Weekend to health care periodicals and medical journals have been citing sleep deprivation as America’s latest “silent epidemic.”
Many people suffering from routine sleep loss are not even aware of it, and many who do realize they are not getting enough sleep are not aware of what it is costing them. Yet one out of every two adults is not getting the sleep they need; an increase of 33% over just the past five years according to the NSF.
These findings are causing researchers to start investigating and discussing the effects of this growing national sleep debt on individuals and society as a whole. The surprising results are that if you want to be productive and creative, to function at your best, and to be a successful problem solver, the best thing you can do is get a good night’s sleep every night.
How does not getting enough sleep affect us according to the sleep researchers?
- Problem solving skills are impaired.
Research at the Sleep Research Center based at Loughborough
University in Leicestershire, England, has demonstrated that
sleep loss (simply not getting enough sleep) noticeably
impairs our ability to comprehend rapidly changing
situations, increases the likelihood of distraction, makes
us think more rigidly and less flexibly, and reduces our
ability to produce innovative solutions to problems.
- Communication skills suffer.
The research at Loughborough University went on to show how
sleep loss reduced the words in one’s vocabulary both
verbally and in writing, resulting in stilted conversations
and a greater use of cliches.
- Learning and memory suffer. A
1996 study in the United States demonstrates how a group of
10-14 years olds allowed to sleep for a full 10 hours per
night performed far better on tests of memory, verbal
fluency and overall creativity than students who were only
allowed to sleep half that time. This has been reinforced by
the Loughborough University studies showing the cerebral
cortex to be the part of the body most affected by
inadequate sleep. They have shown a direct connection
between sleep loss and our abilities to concentrate and
- Motor skills are impaired. Numerous studies ranging from those conducted by Loughborough University to ones conducted by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have demonstrated a direct connection between sleepiness and impaired hand-eye coordination. The degree of impairment has led researchers to compare it in severity to drunkenness. The combination of impaired judgment and diminished hand-eye coordination leads to at least 100,000 automobile accidents per year according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and numerous home and industrial accidents.
The net results of not getting enough sleep are impaired judgment, diminished creativity and productivity, inability to concentrate, reduced language and communication skills, slowed reaction times, and decreased abilities to learn and remember.
How significant is this in the workplace?
The National Commission on Sleep Disorders estimates that sleep loss alone is costing American businesses $150 billion per year in higher stress, inattention, and diminished workplace productivity.
A National Sleep Foundation survey discovered that “an alarming one-third of American adults scored at levels of sleepiness known to be hazardous.”
Out of those reporting daytime sleepiness, 40% admit that it does interfere with their day-to-day activities.
For some it is their social lives that suffer, for others it is their families, but for most it is their workplace activities that suffer.
This type of sleepiness is a major contributor to inattention, which accounts for one-sixth of all accidents and countless number of poor decisions.
This type of sleepiness has been cited as a significant contributing factor to the Chernobyl disaster, the Challenger explosion and approximately 100,000 automobile accidents during the past year.
What can a person do?
Primarily recognize that sleep researchers are now showing us that sufficient sleep is as critical to peak performance as proper diet and exercise. The research is showing that the ROI for taking an extra half-hour to an hour for sleep per night is much more significant than we have previously realized.
Get more REM Sleep
There is nothing better for getting the day started off right than waking up in a good mood. This is especially true if we weren’t in the best of moods when we went to sleep. Well there is good news from the sleep researchers. The sleep we get while we are dreaming helps us wake up in a better mood.
A recent study by researchers at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois, demonstrated that the more REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep we get the more likely we are to wake up feeling positive and upbeat.
Their study measured overnight mood and depression change in 30 men and 30 women and revealed that increased REM sleep time contributes significantly toward reducing negative mood overnight. The researchers used mood and depression scales combined with sleep and dream content measurements collected over two nights in a sleep lab to observe these results.
REM sleep, also commonly known as dreaming sleep, is one of the two types of sleep we experience during a sleep cycle. During recent years sleep researchers have been discovering more and more relationships between REM sleep and emotional relaxation and rejuvenation. This study continues to affirm that connection. The other type of sleep we experience is known as NREM or Non-REM, which includes the deep or Delta sleep that provides for daily physical and mental rest and renewal.
What can a person do to get more REM sleep?
Basically, just sleep a little longer. A person will typically experience a period of REM sleep every 60-90 minutes starting approximately 90 minutes into the sleep cycle. The first REM period is only about five minutes long, but the duration increases with each REM period with the fourth or fifth period lasting up to an hour. It is because of this characteristic of REM sleep that people who sleep for seven hours or more get significantly more REM sleep than those sleeping six hours or less.
The chart below is the typical adult sleep cycle prepared by Quanta Dynamics illustrates this relationship between REM and non-REM sleep.¹ It shows the approximate timing of the last lengthy REM sleep period and the significance of that extra hour of sleep if we want to wake up feeling good.
The study conducted by Drs. R.D. Cartwright, A. Luten, A. Patel, and M. Yound was presented during the 11th Annual Conference of APSS meeting in San Francisco, California, in June 1997. All of the subjects were screened in advance to eliminate those suffering from depression, and all were drug and alcohol free. They all also agreed to regularize their sleep patterns prior to the test.
Another Great Reason to Avoid Sleep Deprivation
“If you suffer from headaches, it could be because, like most everyone else, you’re losing sleep,” according to a report released by the Excedrin Headache Resource Center. “Lack of sleep is a common contributor to tension headaches.” And according to Dr. Robert Watson, Director of the New Haven Sleep Disorders Center in Connecticut, “Most Americans probably aren’t getting as much sleep as they should.”
Their report goes on to share the information that everyone is talking about these days. People are working more and sleeping less, and suffering as a result. We have discovered that over the past two decades the average American work schedule has increased by 158 hours per year; nearly 4 full work weeks. Working mothers have increased their workload by a half again as much.
Headaches are only part of the personal cost of working more and sleeping less according to their report. “People who don’t get enough sleep find it harder to handle the stresses of everyday life,” they say. “This in turn generates even more stress.” The result is a lose-lose situation since the increased stress frequently interferes with being able to get to sleep or to sleep through the night.
“Sleep deprivation has been described as a ‘silent epidemic’ because, even though the problem is widespread, few recognize how serious it is,” the report declares. Other problems resulting from the lack of sleep include:
- Decreased mental sharpness. “Perhaps the most
important benefit of sleep is its effect on mental
performance,” the report states. “Even the loss of
a single night’s sleep can affect our ability to
- Reduced creativity. Various research supports this
realization that we have more difficulty thinking on our
feet and being creative when we have had an insufficient
amount of sleep.
- Irritability. No need for lab research here,
although there is plenty to show, people who don’t get
enough sleep are difficult to be around and to work with.
- Feeling “down.” “The psychological consequences of sleep deprivation,” according to the report, “can range from negative mood and general malaise to feelings of poor health and unhappiness.”
So what do they suggest for folks who are trying to do too much with too little sleep.
- Make sleep a priority
- Consolidate your sleep into one solid period
- Develop healthy eating habits because healthy people sleep better
- Practice proper sleep-inducing habits
- Grab a nap when you can
Dr. Watson adds a word of caution, “If you wake up most mornings with a headache that goes away during the day, you may be experiencing sleep apnea, a condition in which patients stop breathing for short periods of time while they’re sleeping.” In such instances, you should consult your family doctor.