Column: Many individuals impaired by chronic 'sleep debt'

11:24 AM, Jun. 7, 2013  |  Comments
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Each of us sleeps about 1 hours less each night than our great-grandparents did a century ago. Technology has allowed our days to become longer and our nights shorter, sacrificing our sleep in the name of progress. Even when we try to "catch up" on sleep, feeling more rested temporarily, our "sleep debt" can remain unsatisfied.

What is "sleep debt"? "Sleep debt" is an accumulation of lost sleep due to even a minor loss each day. This debt, similar to monetary debt, requires repayment.

What seems like a quick and easy solution - borrowing from our sleep to meet the demands of our days - creates a vicious cycle of indebtedness. Simply attempting to repay the amount of the week's sleep debt on the weekend may not completely satisfy the amount we owe.

Interestingly, a small amount of sleep debt accumulated on a normal day helps us fall asleep at night. Too large an ongoing sleep debt, and we fall asleep too quickly, at inappropriate times.

How does sleep debt affect me? Millions of Americans live less than optimal lives, performing at less than optimal levels, impaired by sleep debt. Sleep debt affects your health. For instance, obesity is linked to the shorter sleep times.

Indeed, sleepiness is the most common brain impairment. Chronic sleep debt lowers our performance, reaction time, motor function, memory, alertness, vigilance and attention span.

Is being tired really a big deal? The Exxon Valdez disaster is a painful example of an enormous price paid for sleep debt. While news reports blamed the ship captain's drinking for the tragedy, final reports revealed that the third mate in charge at the time had only slept six hours in the previous 48 and was seriously sleep-deprived.

Similarly, reports of the Challenger Space Shuttle tragedy blamed the malfunction of the shuttle's O-rings for its disaster, while the Human Factors Subcommittee attributed the "error to launch" to the severe sleep deprivation of the NASA managers.

Our nation's sleep debt interplays with alcohol use. Even responsible drinkers, who remain under the legal alcohol limit, are unaware of the dangerous effects of even limited alcohol use combined with an existing sleep debt.

What are some signs of sleep debt?

? Dragging ourselves out of bed when the alarm goes off.

? Experiencing drowsy driving any time of the day.

? Lack of energy to exercise, even to take a walk.

? Requiring energy drinks, coffee, tea or soda to function.

? Craving sugary junk foods.

? Yawning and rubbing your eyes throughout the day.

? Trouble staying alert especially after lunch.

? Collapsing into bed and falling to sleep too quickly.

? Irritability.

What can be done to solve the problem of sleep debt?

? Get tested. Be certain that the sleep you are getting is not interrupted by a sleep disorder such as snoring or sleep apnea. Don't accept your bed partner's snoring interrupting your sleep quality.

? Add a small amount of sleep time to your normal sleep schedule each day.

? Acknowledge ANY sleepiness while driving as a red alert. Accept that drowsy eyelids are not the first sign of sleepiness, but the last sign before you fall asleep!

? Make sleep a priority. Consider it doctor's orders!

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If you've ever answered "Who has the ball?" with "It's halftime," you might recognize The Airhead. Check out the characters in our cartoon gallery of oddball fans.

Special Reports