The Health Hazards of Sleepiness
Sleepless in America
Dana Greenia's worries about her job have begun to invade her dreams -- that is, when she actually gets to sleep. On too many nights, the 43-year-old university administrator in Orange, California, spends hours staring at her bedroom ceiling, endlessly running over her lengthy mental to-do list, then dragging herself to work the next day after only about four hours of shut-eye. Her punishing schedule doesn't afford any lulls that would allow her to refuel. In addition to overseeing a 100-person academic department, she's the mother of two kids under 4, she commutes in rush-hour traffic for up to two hours a day, and she somehow squeezes in laundry, grocery shopping, and cooking.
"I'm exhausted all the time," Greenia says, "and there never seem to be enough hours in the day."
The former nurse limits her caffeine fix to two cups of coffee a day, but when she's beat, she recharges with a late-afternoon Frappuccino so she won't fall asleep at the wheel on her long drive home. "But then the caffeine will keep me going until after we've put the kids to bed," says Greenia, who hits the sack by 10 but is often up until 2 waiting for sleep. "Then the alarm goes off at 6," she says, "and it starts all over again."
Like many of us, Greenia is trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of sleeplessness caused by the relentless stress of our 24-7 lives. Being sleep deprived makes us even more stressed because we're often unable to perform simple tasks competently, leaving us scrambling to catch up -- and worrying we won't be able to sleep the next night.
"Stress is the primary reason why people have difficulty sleeping -- it's the most powerful disrupter of sleep, even more so than caffeine," says Gregg D. Jacobs, PhD, a sleep expert at Harvard Medical School, in Boston, and author of Say Goodnight to Insomnia (Holt, 1999). Stress can turn us into chronic insomniacs, he adds, "because after days of sleeping poorly, we can become preoccupied with not sleeping," which can make sleep even harder to come by.
In fact, half of adult Americans say stress and worry keep them up at night, according to a 2004 Harris Interactive poll. Indeed, seven out of 10 adults get fewer than six hours of sleep most nights, when between seven and nine is considered optimal. But being terminally tired doesn't just sap your energy and make you dim-witted and ill-tempered. Shortchanging yourself of restful slumber may have serious health consequences. It also compromises safety by increasing the risk of industrial and automobile accidents.
"There's no substitute for getting a good night's sleep on a regular basis," says Carl E. Hunt, MD, director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, in Bethesda, Maryland. "Sleep is just as important to our overall health and happiness as exercise and a nutritious diet."