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Winning the Battle for Sleep

I once saw an ad touting a method for executives to learn to sleep only 4 hours a night, and still increase their productivity. While the fantasy of being able to squeeze more hours out of the day is an attractive one, it is just that: a fantasy. When it comes to sleep, there really are no shortcuts.

Americans are chronically sleep deprived. The demands of modern life obviously cut into our sleeping time, but leisure time plays a surprisingly large role as well. The days of going to bed when it gets dark and rising with the sun disappeared long ago.

Now our world is inundated with electric lights, computers, smart phones, and virtually limitless internet access. It is often tempting to give into distractions like social media or binge watching television, causing us to stay up much later than we intended. It doesn’t help that many people simply don’t understand how much sleep we need to function and stay healthy.

We probably all know someone who sleeps 5 or 6 hours per night, and who takes pride in being able to function on such little sleep. However, this person is still most likely suffering from the effects of sleep deprivation. While there are people who need less sleep, true short sleepers are rare.

In 2015 the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), together with the Sleep Research Society, issued a consensus statement addressing the recommended amount of sleep for a healthy adult. After reviewing an extensive amount of scientific literature, the conclusion of this panel of experts is that,

“Adults should sleep 7 or more hours per night on a regular basis to promote optimal health.”

In recent years, there have been major efforts to raise sleep awareness and educate Americans about the dangers of widespread sleep deficiency. For example, in 2013, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) asked the AASM to coordinate the National Healthy Sleep Awareness Project, to promote healthier sleep. According to a recent study, it looks like these efforts might be working.

The study, published in the journal Sleep, is titled, “Sleep Duration in the United States 2003-2016: First Signs of Success in the Fight Against Sleep Deficiency?” In it, Dr. Mathias Basner and Dr. David Dinges (both of the University of Pennsylvania) find that respondents slept an average of 1.4 minutes more per night on weekdays and 0.8 minutes more on weekends.*

This may not seem like much, but over the course of a year it translates into an extra 8 hours of sleep: in other words, an extra full night’s sleep every year. Analysis shows that the increase in sleep per night was largely due to people going to bed earlier, although many participants were a little later to rise as well.

The idea of Americans going to bed earlier might come as a surprise, given all the modern distractions available in the bedroom. However, the authors of the study find that there was actually a decrease in two of the most common bedtime disruptions: reading and watching television. Perhaps the educational and public awareness campaigns are succeeding in motivating people to take more interest in their sleep health.

Finally, evidence suggests that the internet may actually be helping people to get more sleep. Being able to shop, work, learn, and bank online saves people time that they would have spent traveling to the store, the office, the school, or the bank. Saving this extra time may allow them to get to bed a little earlier.

There is also growing evidence which suggests that sleep deficiency is not just a cause of fatigue, but is also associated with weight gain, obesity, diabetes, and hypertension, among other conditions. Another interesting finding is that respondents also spent less time eating and drinking across the surveyed years; the authors suggest that sleeping longer may have played a role.

Of course, in a study this large and spanning such a long time-period, there is the possibility some of the respondents may have had insomnia or other sleep disorders. Treating insomnia often requires more than turning off the TV and the lights. A variety of treatments are available that can help individuals who are having difficulty sleeping.

It would appear that Americans are making progress on getting the sleep they need but with 55 million of us suffering from insomnia we are a long way from winning the war.


* Data for the study was taken from the results of the American Time Use Survey for the years 2003-2016 from over 181,000 Americans ages 15 to 60 years old. This survey collected self-reported information on sleep duration and waking activities.

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