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Experts at Northwestern Memorial's Sleep Disorders Center Urge Americans to Take Measures to Prevent Sleep Deprivation

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February 28, 2009

Chicago -

Millions affected by prolonged sleep loss  

For 70 million adults bothered by irregular sleep patterns or chronic sleep disorders, their time awake likely reflects the effects of an inadequate amount of rest, from decreased productivity and lack of concentration to an inability to handle stress. As we prepare to spring forward and many work to adjust to an hour less of sleep, experts at Northwestern Memorial’s Sleep Disorders Center emphasize the importance of starting and maintaining good sleep habits to ensure a full night’s rest.

The effects of sleep deprivation

Irritation, slowed thinking and reacting abilities and memory difficulty are some of the more noticeable and immediate effects of sleep loss. According to research from the National Sleep Foundation, more than half of American employees report that drowsiness on the job interferes with their work performance.

Sleep deprivation has also been linked to serious health issues such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular complications and a weakened immune system. A natural cycle of sleep and wakefulness helps to control body functions such as metabolism, hormone levels, and blood pressure. Prolonged sleep loss can throw these functions off balance and thus place a person at a higher risk for developing health problems.

“Many people mistakenly assume that the only consequence of sleep deprivation is a feeling of drowsiness,” says Phyllis Zee, MD, director of the Sleep Disorders Center. “Sleep loss and poor sleep quality have far-reaching consequences that can take a toll on a person’s health and overall well-being.

The science behind sleep needs

The number of hours needed for sleep depends on individual factors and can vary from seven to nine hours. Dr. Zee explains that while there is no set amount of hours of sleep that applies to all, there are important sleep factors that affect everyone: a basal sleep need, which is the amount of sleep needed on a regular basis for optimal performance, and a sleep debt, which is the accumulated amount of sleep lost to poor sleep habits and inadequate rest. Basal sleep is constantly needed to “pay down” a sleep debt.

“Your basal sleep need may change over time, so pay attention to signs that you may require more sleep than you’ve needed in the past to be well-rested the next day,” says Zee.

Set the stage for falling asleep

For many, a lack of quality sleep stems from getting off to a rough start at bed time. As research shows many Americans’ standard work schedules now average nine to 10 hours, the day’s challenges and stress may mean that falling asleep quickly may not come easy.

“Often times, we’re so wired from a busy day at work or the day’s activities, that we carry our energy and thoughts into bed,” says Lisa Wolfe, MD, a sleep medicine specialist. “This can throw off your body’s clock, preventing it from differentiating between waking and sleeping hours.”

Dr. Wolfe explains that the ideal atmosphere for falling asleep extends beyond lying in bed with the lights turned out. She shares the following interesting insights into some methods for turning off your brain to fall asleep quicker and wake up well-rested:

  • Maintain a regular bed-time – Setting your internal clock to a consistent bed time helps your body auto-start the sleep process accordingly.
  • Work up a sweat – exercise can give your body something to rest from and help you stay asleep at night. To allow enough wind-down time, it’s best to complete exercise at least two hours before going to bed.
  • Steam up to cool down – The drop in your body’s temperature after taking a hot shower and entering a cooler room is a process that naturally mimics day and night, and may help guide you to sleep.
  • Put your thoughts to bed – Jot down your to-do list for the next day and keep it near the bed to avoid racing thoughts that can prevent you from falling and staying asleep. Dr. Wolfe also suggests keeping a “worry diary” to help evaluate thoughts and concerns that keep you from getting a good night’s rest.
  • Lose interest – Avoid activities such as going online or watching TV that will hold your interest and keep you engaged in concentration. Doing or reading something that you find mindless in a dimly lit area may help you feel sleepy.

Dr. Wolfe cautions against the use of certain over-the-counter drugs at bed time, such as cold pills containing pseudoephedrine, a decongestant that acts as a stimulant. Likewise, avoid caffeine during the evening and heavy late-night meals.

If sleep doesn’t come naturally despite trying different methods, speak with your physician to determine the cause of sleep loss and regain control over your ability to be well-rested.

"Unfortunately, many people suffering from sleep loss hesitate to talk with their doctors because they don't think their problem is serious enough," says Dr. Zee. “However, delaying medical attention for a possible chronic sleep problem can lead to serious consequences, so it’s crucial to address any issues and work towards treatment that will get you on the path to better sleep.”

Northwestern Memorial’s Sleep Disorders Center conducts day and night studies for the diagnosis and treatment of a multitude of sleep disorders, including sleep apnea, periodic limb movement disorder, nocturnal behaviors such as sleep walking, talking and eating in sleep, acting out dreams, and narcolepsy. To learn more contact the Sleep Disorder Center at 312-926-2650.

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Last UpdateDecember 15, 2011
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