America's Sleep Deficit

by Tina Blue
November 18, 2000

          Americans seem to be prejudiced against sleep. Actually, we seem to be prejudiced against rest and relaxation of any sort. Even our leisure time ends up looking more like hard work than like rest. But the prejudice against sleep is especially pernicious.

          Anyone who sleeps "too much," or who is not up and about by some arbitrarily defined time in the morning, is considered to be morally suspect--a practitioner of sloth, one of the seven deadly sins. It doesn't matter whether that person has been asleep for nine hours or ninety minutes--if he is "sleeping late" he must be lazy.

          But the fact is that adequate sleep is as necessary to life as adequate food. A person who fails to get enough sleep on any given night begins to accumulate what sleep experts call a "sleep debt." That debt must eventually be paid, too. If it continues to accumulate, the body will at some point simply refuse to stay awake, no matter how hard the person tries to keep his eyes open. I actually had one exhausted student who fell asleep while writing an in-class essay during my 7:30 a.m. English 101 class. He leaned his head back against the wall and slept, even as his hand continued to move across the page. There was no essay--just weird pen markings. I had to wake him for his next class!

          Before slipping into such a deep sleep, a sleep-deprived person will usually go through a stage where he lapses into "micro-sleeps," lasting from a few seconds to a few minutes, without even knowing that he has dozed. Of course, if he is driving a car, flying a plane, or operating dangerous machinery, he might find out in a most unpleasant way that he has been napping on the job. Even worse, he might not live long enough to find out at all. A young cousin of mine is currently undergoing physical rehabilitation for neck and spine injuries suffered when he went off the road and flipped his car over after dozing off at the wheel. It happened, as such accidents often do, after he had worked a late shift.

          Just as we need adequate sleep, we also need regular sleep schedules. Jet lag is the most obvious and best known manifestation of severely disrupted sleep routines, but any irregular sleep pattern can stress both the body and the mind.

          Sleep deprivation and irregular sleep patterns are implicated in heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, overeating, drug and alcohol abuse, and depression. People who do not get enough sleep or who are unable to sleep according to a regular schedule are almost certainly shortening their lives. Sleep deprivation also compromises the immune system, rendering one more susceptible to illnesses of all kinds, from colds to cancer.

          Dr. William C. Dement, a pioneer in sleep research--actually, one of the "inventors" of that field of study--laments in his book The Promise of Sleep that "a huge reservoir of knowledge about sleep, sleep deprivation, and sleep disorders has been building up behind a dam of pervasive ignorance and unresponsive bureaucracies." The American resistance to accepting the necessity of sleep, he warns, has made inevitable the occurrence of "preventable tragedies." Pilots, truck drivers, third-shift machine operators, medical residents in hospitals--many people whose work puts them in a position to kill accidentally, or to be killed--are always under pressure to work impossibly long hours or according to highly irregular sleep schedules.

          Students all over America try to learn in school without having had enough sleep. Teenagers especially are at an age when their developing bodies require extra sleep. The few school districts that have moved the first class period from the typical 7:00 or 8:00 a.m. starting time to 9:30 a.m. have found students to be more alert and far more interested in classes.

          Ironically, at a time when their bodies need more sleep, teens are delighting in their newly-won freedom to stay up later, as well as in the increased number of interesting things they can do with those extra hours of waking time. Doubly ironic is the fact that their biorhythms also change during this stage, making it hard for them to fall asleep before 11:00 or midnight, even if they want to. No wonder early morning classes are so hard to wake up for.

          The mood swings and irritable behavior associated with adolescence may not always be cause by adolescence at all, since these are also key symptoms of sleep-deprivation. And even when the primary cause of such symptoms is adolescence, there is little doubt that they are exacerbated by sleep-deprivation.

          A century ago, Americans averaged about nine hours of sleep a night. Now they average about seven. Too many people (especially those in a position to decide how much the rest of us should work and what hours we should keep) consider sleep to be a luxury, or at the very least negotiable. It isn't. It is as necessary to life and health as are food and water.


NOTE: In another article ("Slow Down--You're Moving Too Fast!") I address some of the causes and consequences, including sleep-deprivation--of our fast-paced modern lifestyle.

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