Recently I watched a startling documentary called “Sleepless in America”, and it’s a real eye opener. The film is a collaborative effort among the National Institutes of Health and the National Geographic Channel to bring attention to what can only be called a national epidemic of modern American life – lack of sleep.
Now if you are one of those who say, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead”, the documentary suggests you’ll be dead a lot quicker if you’re not sleeping, and the quality of life you’ll have while you’re alive will be significantly worse.
Consider some of the statistics:
• Forty percent of all Americans and 70 percent of adolescents are sleep deprived.
• On average, Americans sleep two hours less a night than they did 40 years ago.
• Doctors issued 60 million prescriptions for sleep medications in 2011, a number which is surely even higher today.
• The average American sleeps less than seven hours Monday through Friday.
• An otherwise-healthy person can become pre-diabetic after one week of sleep deprivation.
If you see yourself anywhere on that list, and statistics suggest that’s likely, you’re part of the modern epidemic of sleeplessness. And it is an epidemic whose roots can be found in the invention of artificial light.
Before Edison, most people went to bed shortly after dusk and got up with the sun the next morning, in accordance with what is known as the circadian rhythm common to all life.The circadian clock tells the body when to sleep and when to wake up and is tied to the 24-hour solar cycle. Once humans started fooling around with day and night, so to speak, the circadian rhythm was interrupted. By the way, humans are the only species to deny themselves sleep.
OK, so we know we don’t get enough sleep, but we are only beginning to know the full extent of sleeplessness on our health and well-being. Weight gain, depression, diabetes, memory loss, brain function impairment and stress are all factors that have been linked to sleep deprivation. Doctors are also exploring links to Alzheimer’s disease.
“We have stepped way outside our biological boundaries,” says Dr. Eve Van Cauter of the University of Chicago.
The two-hour film, produced and directed by John Hoffman of the Public Good Projects, is frightening. It’s meant to be. Many of us think we can either catch up on sleep on the weekends or pop a pill. But the math of catching up on weekends doesn’t work, biologically speaking, and some sleep aids can have side effects. More to the point, says Dr. Thomas Neylan of the University of California, San Francisco, insomnia is a chronic condition, which means that it is likely to return once you stop taking sleeping pills.
Dr. Matthew P. Walker of the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied the effects of sleeplessness on brain function, cited technological invasions into the bedroom at night as contributing factors to the epidemic of sleeplessness.
One thing everyone can do to get a better night’s sleep? Leave the electronics out of the bedroom. Sixty percent of us bring our cellphones and other electronic devices along when we retire for the night. “The problem is that we can’t resist the stimulation — it’s too rewarding,” says Hoffman. “It’s exceeding anything that we were designed to experience, so it’s keeping us up beyond what we’re designed for.”
Researchers are now discovering that sleep disorders aren’t just a byproduct of mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. “That’s going to be one of the next revelations of the sleep research field,” says Walker. “Based on modern-day research, we’re starting to understand that sleep abnormalities make a significant contribution to the development of those psychiatric conditions.”
University of Pennsylvania research has shown that skipping sleep increases cravings for bad carbs and fatty foods by 33 percent, adding an extra 500 frequently empty calories into the diets of poor sleepers.
Some 15 million people work the night shift and 40 percent of them get less than six hours of sleep. Dr. Walker notes that the link between sleep loss and cancer is so strong now that the World Health Organization has classified shift work as a probable carcinogen.
The best prescription – behavior modification – may seem easy, but it isn’t. In specific terms, it’s cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, a process that can be summed up as keeping regular sleep hours and staying in bed only for sleep or sex – but it’s almost as difficult as quitting smoking.
It turns out, sleep is the body’s natural way of repairing and restoring, and what happens overnight has good effects on how we look as well as how we feel. When you are asleep, you repair damaged DNA and rebuild the molecules your cells are going to need for the next day, like proteins, steroids and heme. When you are sleepless, you make molecules that are typically associated with stress: proteins that don’t fold properly and clump together, and heat-shock proteins that are designed to help the body cope with cellular stressors.
In essence, if you sleep well, you have an overnight tune-up; if you don’t sleep well, your system experiences cellular stress. The bottom line is, lack of sleep has detrimental consequences on maintaining long-term health.
Fortunately, for people that have problems sleeping, there is an alternative to sleeping pills and it’s host of side effects. Melatonin is a molecule that is present in bacteria, plants, and throughout the animal world. It is the biological signal of darkness and it helps you get a restful sleep. Melatonin is the hormone your brain and body make to regulate your own sleep. It is secreted in proper amounts if your eyes are in total darkness during sleep and if you get exposure to a full spectrum of light during the day.
However, most of us don’t get enough hours of light during the day or access to complete darkness at night. Even a crack of light through the window or the light from an alarm clock (unless it is red light) is enough to significantly lower the production of melatonin. We also naturally make less as we age.
Melatonin plays an important role in supporting the body’s natural repair and rebuilding processes that happen during sleep. It is a powerful antioxidant that helps maintain the integrity of our cells.
In adults, melatonin can be used as a dietary supplement to help with occasional sleeplessness and to help you fall asleep easier and sleep more soundly. It has very few side effects and no danger to memory or breathing as medications can have.
The company I have aligned my life with, USANA Health Sciences, has created a superior melatonin product, called “Pure Rest.”
USANA has also created a great video as well as a blog post, with great tips on how to get a restful sleep.
Although the information in “Sleepless in America” is disturbing, if you have paid attention to this information, it won’t keep you up at night.