A shortage of sleep

Are you feeling sleepy? If you are, you might think it’s the busy time of the year, but sleepiness isn’t limited to the holidays. According to scientists, around two thirds of North Americans are sleep-deprived all the time.

Over the past century the average amount of sleep people get has shrunk by more than 20 percent. Today, one out of three of us gets by on six or fewer hours of sleep a night.

This is not good. To name just one effect of the shortage of sleep, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the U.S. estimates that drowsy drivers cause at least 100,000 car accidents a year in that country.

Just one sleepless night reduces early-morning hand-eye coordination to the level of someone intoxicated. Even minor sleep deprivation over a few days saps concentration, sours a person’s mood and lowers reaction times. It also increases the incident of headaches and stomach and joint problems.

The dangers of drowsiness have prompted Japan’s Electronic and Navigation Institute, which studies air-travel technology issues, to invent a fatigue and drowsiness predictor, which supposedly can detect tiredness in test subjects 10 to 20 minutes before they themselves notice it by measuring tiny changes in the voice. Preliminary tests have been promising, so the institute is planning to try out the device on pilots and air-traffic controllers.

Why do we sleep less than our ancestors did? Blame Thomas Edison. Before electric light, people slept 10 hours a night. Bright artificial light made it easier for people to stay up late and work late. And in the last 20 years alone we’ve added 158 hours to the average time spent in work and commuting each year.

As well, many people actually brag about their ability to get by without much sleep, equivalent to bragging about your ability to work while drunk–it’s not addressing the underlying problem.

Sleep isn’t just a “down time” when nothing gets done. Our brains need sleep–although we’re still not entirely sure why. Still, if sleep weren’t important, we wouldn’t have a self-regulating need for it. Stay awake too long, and you’ll eventually nod off, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing.

New mothers are the most sleep-deprived people. During the baby’s first year, a new mother may lose between 400 and 750 hours of sleep–as much as two hours a night, in other words. (Women who live with men are more likely to be sleep deprived than other people anyway for the simple reason that fully half of men snore, while only 36 percent of women snore.)

Another study has shown that single men and women in their 20s who work full-time are more likely to be sleep-deprived than their married peers, probably because they’re more likely to stay out late at night and they’re more likely to be workaholics.

Many people try to make up for lack of sleep by sleeping in on the weekends, but that doesn’t work. Sleeping in on Sunday morning, for example, makes it hard to go to sleep Sunday night–which makes Monday tougher.

Sleep deprivation is so widespread that, according to Cornell University psychologist James Maas, the simplest strategy is just to assume you’re getting one hour of sleep a night less than you need.

If you want to be more precise, he suggests sleeping a full eight hours every night for a week. If you rise rested and ready to go, and keep that feeling all day, you’ve gotten enough sleep. If not, he suggests you try changing your bedtime by adding to (or subtracting from) it by 15 to 30 minutes for a week. Eventually, you should find the number of hours of sleep that’s right for you.

Daytime naps can help. Fifteen to 30 minutes in the middle of the afternoon can perk you up, but stay away from anything longer–that sends you into deep sleep and may actually make you groggy.

One tip for getting a good night’s sleep is to exercise–regular exercises get more restful sleep than those who don’t. (Exercising during the day, before dinner, is the best bet.) Winding down before bedtime with a bath or light reading helps; so does creating an appealing environment for sleep, going to bed at the same time each night and waking up at the same time each morning, and making sure you have a good alarm clock (so you don’t lie awake worrying about whether you’ll wake up on time in the morning!).

Personally, I recommend writing about sleep. Now that I’m finished, I’m ready for a nap.

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/2000/12/a-shortage-of-sleep/

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