Deprivation of Sleep

A Thief in the Night

Author: Winston Craig, MPH, PhD, RD.


Hitting the button on the alarm clock to get an additional 10 to 15 minutes of morning sleep- does that sound familiar? Americans have accepted sleep deprivation as a new way of life. They consider sleep as an expendable luxury. Such is the conclusion of a recent government report. The findings are published in the book “Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem“.

About 15 to 20% of adults in America experience chronic loss of sleep, with the habit of getting less than 6 hours of sleep. Sleep deprived people don’t feel as well, don’t function as well academically, and get into more accidents than people getting adequate sleep. With sleep deprivation one also experiences impaired memory and learning ability, anxiety symptoms, and lowered immune defenses.

The increase in sleep loss is driven largely by broad societal changes, including greater reliance on longer work hours, shift work, and greater access to television and the Internet. The cumulative long-term effects of sleep loss have been associated with a wide range of deleterious health consequences including an increased risk of hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, heart attack, and stroke.

In a 10 year study, persons who got 5 hours or less of sleep were more than twice as likely to develop hypertension as those who got 7 to 8 hours a night. Adults who reported 5 hours of sleep or less were 2.5 times more likely to have diabetes compared with those getting 7 to 8 hours per night. In the Nurses Health Study, 5 hours of sleep or less was associated with a 45% increase in risk of heart attack.

In a 13-year prospective study, individuals who slept less than 6 hours a night were 7.5 times more likely to have a higher body mass index. Studies show that those who sleep the fewest hours weigh the most. Sleep insufficiency can set the stage for overeating. Ghrelin, produced by the gastrointestinal tract, stimulates appetite, while leptin, produced in fat cells, signals the brain when one is full. Sleep deprivation cause leptin levels to drop (and you don’t feel as satisfied after eating) and ghrelin levels to rise, so you want to eat.

The direct and indirect costs of sleep deprivation and sleep disorders in this country exceed $200 billion. This would include about $50 billion cost in motor vehicle accidents involving tired drivers. In addition, Americans collectively filled over 40 million prescriptions for sleeping medications last year, an increase of 60% over the previous 5 years.

To improve your chances of a good night’s sleep, the National Sleep Foundation recommends the following 7 steps:

  1. Have a regular schedule for going to bed and waking up. Consistency is important. Sleeping in late on weekends can throw off your rhythm.
  2. Create a safe environment for sleep. A comfortable mattress and a dark, quiet room are essential. The ambient temperature should be about 60 to 70 deg F, depending upon personal comfort.
  3. The bedroom should be a designated sleep area not a work zone. Computers, TVs, and heavy reading material should be banned from the bedroom.
  4. Approach bedtime in a relaxed mood. Avoid achievement-oriented tasks, solving challenging conflicts, and lively discussions just prior to bedtime. Develop a regular routine such as light reading, soothing music, or a warm shower or bath to help you relax.
  5. Avoid caffeine containing food and beverages. Such stimulants can keep you awake and affect the quality of your sleep.
  6. Quit eating 3 to 4 hours before regular bedtime. A big meal late in the evening usually guarantees that you will wake up less refreshed and less rejuvenated the next morning.
  7. Exercise or workout regularly. The wise man said that the “sleep of a laboring man is sweet”. (Eccl 5:12). The workout should finish long before bedtime to enable one to wind down and prepare for sleep.

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