The Health Hazards of Sleepiness

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Wired and Wide Awake

Women seem to have a harder time than men getting a good night's rest. In fact, almost two-thirds of women suffer from insomnia, according to the National Sleep Foundation, whether their trouble lies in not being able to fall sleep, waking up several times during the night, or rousing early and being unable to fall back to sleep. Part of the reason is that women suffer more from stress-related conditions that prevent sleep, such as migraines and tension headaches. As we get older, our bodies' chemical balance subtly shifts, too: We produce less estrogen, which normally lengthens the duration of restorative slow-wave and REM sleep. Levels of progesterone, a hormone that helps us fall asleep and stay asleep through the night, also drop, according to Joyce A. Walsleben, PhD, former director of the Sleep Disorders Center at New York University School of Medicine, in New York City. "Women also tend to ruminate more than men," she says. "All of these factors contribute to not getting enough sleep."


Even if we do manage to fall asleep when our heads hit the pillow, stress can prevent rest from being sufficiently restorative to make us feel refreshed and alert. Normally, levels of the stress hormone cortisol fluctuate throughout the day, rising in the early-morning hours to rouse us from our slumbers, and steadily increasing throughout the late morning and early afternoon before slowly dropping in the evening as our day winds down. But when we're stressed-out, cortisol levels remain high, says Dr. Hunt. The extra surge of cortisol -- that second wind that helps us power through our chores at home after a long workday -- disturbs our natural sleep cycle and prevents us from achieving the deep slow-wave sleep the body needs in order to be replenished. As a consequence, we wake up feeling like zombies, and the cycle starts all over again.

Many women have so many responsibilities that they sacrifice sleep to fit in all their daily tasks. For example, Sue Watts, a 45-year-old mother of two from Deep River, Connecticut, works part-time as a landscape architect. She leaves for work by 6:15 a.m. on Mondays and works 12 to 14 hours that day. The rest of the week she works mostly at night, sometimes until 1 a.m. This schedule frees up her days so she can pitch in with the reading groups at her daughter's second-grade class, ferry her kids to ballet, horseback riding lessons, and soccer, and do household chores. But she's lucky if she gets five to six hours of sleep a night.

"I run on too little sleep most of the time," says Watts, who attends aerobics classes five times a week for "their energizing boost." While her routine is admittedly draining, "being tired all the time is a small price to pay," she says. "I have all these things I want to do, and I can't see wasting time sleeping."

But shorting oneself of sleep is self-defeating, say experts, even for high-octane types like Watts. When we're tired, we're not as efficient. "The irony," says Dr. Hunt, "is that we can get just as much done -- perhaps even more -- when we're feeling refreshed and alert."

Continued on page 3:  Sleep Deprivation and Health Problems


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