Nation at ‘history’s greatest’ level of sleep deprivation

Jamie Gentner

School is back in session, which means there are students trying to keep their eyes open after a long night of homework, online chatting or other activities keeping them up late into the night.

And then there’s mom, who drops the kids off at school in the morning, stops by the local coffee shop for her fix of caffeine and tries to make it through her day without falling asleep because she was up with the baby all night.

All around the country, residents young and old are sleep deprived. But few people may know that continuing a pattern of sleep deprivation can affect them for more than just the day after a long night.

Researchers at Films for Humanities and Sciences have found that sleep is one of the cores of our existence.

“You need sleep for your brain more than anything, because your brain uses more than 20 percent of the fuel your body burns in a day,” Dr. Denise Amschler, a professor of health education at Ball State University, told the Greensburg Daily News in 2005.

Sleeping less cuts into the NREM and REM cycles of sleep, which control neuronal processes necessary for mental and physical performance. Colleen Cowley, Fairchild Medical Center cardiopulmonary department manager and manager of the sleep lab, said that interrupting these cycles can affect a person’s overall health.

“As it looks more and more like some of these processes occur exclusively during sleep and can’t be reproduced while we are awake, the consequences of losing them look more and more terrifying,” Robert Stickgold, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard, told Harvard Magazine in 2005.

And while sleep deprivation may not seem like a big problem, research suggests otherwise.

According to the 2002 Sleep in America poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), only 30 percent of Americans sleep eight or more hours a night, when adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep. A Gallop Poll found that drowsiness is a problem for 56 percent of adults.

Studies have also found that 70 million people in North America suffer from sleep disorders, 36 percent more errors were made in hospitals when nurses and doctors worked long shifts, and 50 percent of fatal car accidents are a result of falling asleep at the wheel.

In 2005, the NSF concluded that 63 percent of students were not getting enough sleep to perform everyday tasks. According to a 2001 report by Dr. Kayla Wahlstrom and Dr. Mark Davison of the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement, the amount of sleep students need in order to avoid behaviors associated with sleep deprivation is nine hours.

“We are living in the middle of history’s greatest experiment in sleep deprivation, and we are all a part of that experiment,” Stickgold said. “It’s not inconceivable to me that we will discover that there are major social, economic and health consequences to that experiment.”

Research supports that assumption.

Professional studies have found numerous effects that come along with sleep deprivation, including fatigue, lack of concentration, decreased motivation, impaired memory, poor moods, illness, insomnia, decreased performance, diabetes, immune system dysfunction, safety hazards, slower reaction times, stress, weight gain and aggressiveness.

In March 2007, the journal SLEEP published an article that claimed sleep deprivation impairs the ability to make moral decisions.

The BBC reported that missing out on sleep might cause the brain to stop producing new cells.

College students looking to avoid the “freshman 15” or anyone on a diet may want to add a good night’s sleep to their diet plan as well, since scientists have recently discovered that sleep deprivation increased the level of hunger hormones while decreasing the level of hormones that make you feel full.

“Everyone always talks about proper nutrition and proper exercise, but nothing is said about sleep,” said Dr. Everett Trevor of the North State Sleep Disorder Center in Redding. “But without sleep, you can’t really have either of them, so I think sleep is every bit as important as exercise and nutrition. It’s on equal footing with good health.”

Captain Jim Betts of the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office said that, during his time with law enforcement, he has seen that sleep deprivation can be a hazard on the road.

“Sleep deprivation can hinder performance, make you sluggish and make you exhibit other drunk-like symptoms,” he said. “People under the influence or using drugs often start hallucinating, which can sometimes happen if you’re sleep deprived as well.”

Trevor noted that studies have found that sleep loss of up to 18 hours produces the same loss of motor functions as being legally drunk.

Betts also mentioned that the military uses sleep deprivation as a means to get people to talk and reveal needed information.

Some research has also suggested that human error played a key role in disasters such as Chernobyl, the Three-Mile Island tragedy and the Exxon Valdez accident, which all took place late at night or after personnel had been up for a long time.

“Sometimes, people don't take sleep seriously,” Trevor said. “But it’s very important for your functions. Going without sleep is definitely hazardous.”

So how do you fix the problem of sleep deprivation?

“You can only treat the problem with good night's sleep,” Cowley said.

Several professionals offer suggestions:

- Get up at the same time every day, even on weekends, and even if you’re tired.

- Avoid sugar and caffeine in the evenings.

- Avoid taking sleeping pills that only make you feel worse the next day.

- Cover up your clock, because you sleep better when you’re not under pressure.

- Give yourself enough time to wake up. Your body needs at least half an hour to wake up before rushing out the door.

- Establish a relaxing bedtime routine.

Cowley and Trevor also suggest seeking help if there is anything to suggest you or anyone in your family has a sleeping disorder such as sleep apnea, which their centers treat.

“People usually compensate for sleep loss by trying to keep active,” Trevor said. “If anyone finds they stay inactive or fall asleep at the drop of a pin wherever they are, they probably have excessive sleep debt that needs to be remedied, and if they can't do that by increasing their sleep time, they may need to be seen.”

For more information on sleep deprivation, visit www.sleep-deprivation.com.

Siskiyou Daily Times