You’ve probably heard of some famous people throughout history who did not make sleep a priority in their busy lives. Some examples are Thomas Edison, John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill and Napoleon Bonaparte. While they may have thought sleep took a back seat to inventions and governmental affairs, studies show that sleep deprivation can lead to health and safety concerns, according to Dr. Sarah Nath Zallek, a neurologist specializing in sleep disorders and medical director of the Illinois Neurological Institute Sleep Center at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center.
“We expect so much of ourselves that we assume it’s okay if we get less than eight hours of sleep a night,” she said. “Some people even treat it as a badge of honor if they don’t sleep very much. They think they need to get other stuff done before they sleep.”
Today’s 24/7 society contributes to this problem, which is known as insufficient sleep syndrome. We can find retail stores and restaurants that are open 24 hours and TV stations that broadcast round-the-clock, and we have access to the Internet any time of the day or night. “There’s so much more available for us to do,” Dr. Zallek said, “that we commonly sacrifice sleep.”
For some people, however, lack of sleep is not a choice. More than 40 million Americans suffer from a chronic sleep disorder.
Obstructive sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder characterized by repeated episodes of interrupted breathing while sleeping. Untreated sleep apnea can lead to such health problems as high blood pressure and increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
There are a number of treatment options for this condition, according to Dr. Zallek:
- In the majority of sleep apnea cases, the most effective treatment is continuous positive airway pressure. Patients wear a mask that delivers pressurized air to keep the airway open and allows continuous breathing.
- A dental appliance that repositions the lower jaw and tongue may prove effective in keeping the airway open.
- Surgery to permanently open the airway may be helpful. The most common such surgery is uvulopalatopharyngoplasty, which removes some tissue that is obstructing the airway.
Workers who must adjust to different shifts and sleep schedules tend to experience difficulty getting sufficient sleep, said Dr. Zallek. She advises them to:
- Educate other members of their household about respecting their need to sleep when others in the house are awake.
- Keep the bedroom dark and quiet.
- Use white noise to drown out sounds that might disturb their sleep.
- Wear earplugs.
- Make the phone unavailable.
- Keep as regular a sleep schedule as possible.
The consequences of sleep deprivation can be serious. Individuals who drive while sleep-deprived put themselves and others at risk. Those with untreated sleep disorders are up to seven times more likely to fall asleep at the wheel. People who work unusual or late-night shifts are prone to accidents at six times the normal rate.
“An enormous number of people admit to drowsy driving regularly and having fallen asleep at the wheel,” Dr. Zallek said. “If a person drives after being awake for 24 hours continuously, his driving performance is equal to that of a person with a blood alcohol level of 0.10, which is more than the legal limit for driving.”
The impact of sleep deprivation on society also takes the form of lost productivity. Individuals who are insufficiently rested perform at 70 percent of their usual productivity rate on the job, according to Dr. Zallek. Furthermore, sleep deprivation is responsible for people missing work altogether.
In some cases, the answer may be as simple as learning to practice good sleep habits. This includes keeping a regular sleep schedule, avoiding napping and creating an environment that is conducive to sleep. Individuals who regularly experience difficulty sleeping despite practicing good habits should consult their primary care physician about a possible referral for testing and clinical evaluation at a comprehensive sleep disorders center.
“Sleep affects so many pieces of our lives, including health, driving, relationships and work,” Dr. Zallek said. “It’s important for people to know that sleep disorders are very diagnosable and treatable.” iBi