In Your Dreams

Why a good night's sleep is so elusive

(page 2 of 2)

Director of Wisconsin Sleep Ruth Benca. Photo by Van Gachnang.

And it’s getting worse. The National Sleep Foundation’s 2005 Sleep in America poll found that the percentage of Americans who get eight hours of sleep per night fell from thirty-eight percent in 2001 to just twenty-six percent in 2005. 

What’s more, that lack of sleep accumulates, and individuals who routinely restrict their sleep to six hours or less actually grow more impaired over time. So you function worse in week five than you did in week four, even if your amount of sleep remains constant over that period.

It’s the concept of sleep debt: The lost sleep adds up and the burden gets heavier as you go. Eventually the body demands that you catch up. If you don’t carve out time on your own, your body will snatch minutes back in microsleeps, or brief periods when you nod off while doing low-stimulus activities such as watching TV, reading a report at work or driving on rural roads.

Other times carrying a heavy sleep debt can lead to insomnia. This is just one of the body’s ironies: to be so tired that you can’t sleep.

It seems counterintuitive, but there are a variety of ways it can happen. For example, if you are overly tired, you might rely heavily on caffeine to stay awake during the afternoon or evening. But then at bedtime, the caffeine can delay or disrupt your sleep, even if you feel very tired. If you self-medicate with alcohol to fall asleep, you could further exacerbate the problem because it, too, interferes with sleep quality. You’re still getting a mere six hours of sleep, and now those inadequate six hours are also less fruitful than they used to be. You’re even more tired than before.

It’s enough to keep you up at night—and for some of us, it does. We know we need to sleep, and we start to worry about all the deleterious consequences we will face if we don’t get enough. “If you put a lot of pressure on yourself, it’s usually going to make things worse,” says Dr. Meredith Rumble, a clinical psychologist and director of the behavioral sleep medicine program at the UW Center for Sleep Medicine and Research.

Rumble sees it in patients all the time, and it is one of the things that gives her pause about articles like this one. She doesn’t want to alarm her patients into that proverbial vicious cycle in which they simply can’t get the sleep they need to feel refreshed, no matter how tired they are or how hard they try.

Middleton says insomnia in people who overly restrict their sleep is not uncommon, and yet many of her patients fail to recognize the role their abbreviated sleep schedules play.

She says the very early risers—the people like WPR’s Terry Bell—often fall into this camp. They think they have acclimated to less sleep or that they get more sleep than they really do. They cope for a while but then something stressful happens and they have trouble falling asleep. Or they get busy and start pushing back the bedtime in small increments. Then they turn to caffeine or alcohol. The next thing they know, they’re feeling tired all day and come looking for some other factor, some kind of ailment, that is causing them fatigue.

“A lot of these people have extremely early wakeup times. These are people getting up at 4 or 4:30, and it’s very hard to get to sleep as early as you should for the very early wakeup times,” Middleton says. “They’re the ones that say, ‘I’ve been doing this forever and that can’t be what it is,’ but basically it has caught up with them and it is what it is.”

It sounds very familiar to Bell. A journalist, he has heard all about the risks of his schedule, and they do concern him. But he loves his work. “This is by far the best job I’ve ever had,” he says, despite the schedule.

He is rather vigilant about his 8:30 bedtime during the week, yet he admits that it can be hard to fall asleep even when he goes to bed on time, and sometimes he lets his social life interfere with his sleep schedule. Still, he knows that the science isn’t on his side. “I do foresee the day when I have a more traditional schedule,” he says. “It’s probably not too healthy to keep these hours indefinitely.”

Middleton says it is imperative to make sleep a priority. When patients do that, she adds, a lot of the stresses that keep them awake or compel them to work harder or do more might magically melt away. While they might not have more hours in the day, the hours they have will be more productive. They will make fewer mistakes that they have to spend time correcting. They will have more patience for their spouses, their coworkers and their kids. They will feel better and want to make better choices about diet and exercise.

Because just as bad sleep can harm virtually every aspect of our lives, good sleep can profoundly improve our health, our work, our relationships and more—even for the chronically sleep-deprived people who have yet to realize how tired they really are.

“Everything is going to be so much better,” Middleton says, “if you just get more sleep.”

Jennifer Garrett is a Madison-based freelance writer. She blogs about wellness in Health Kick.

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