The complexities of sleep and its role in maintaining good brain, body and emotional health are becoming increasingly clear to researchers and healthcare professionals - who also find that mental disorders such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse play no small part in the epidemic levels of sleep deprived people in the United States.
Sleep is so much more than simply turning off the brain and body for periods of time. It turns out that sleep is as vital to optimal functioning as good diet and exercise.
The value of sleep is hugely underrated in our culture. In a global environment where it's always daylight somewhere, we are pressed to respond to demands no matter what the local time. Add to that the prevalence of stressful lifestyles, substance abuse, and mood and sleeping disorders and you end up with a lot of tired people who are functioning below capacity, at times putting themselves and others in danger.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, driver drowsiness is responsible for around 100,000 motor vehicle accidents and 1,500 deaths each year. Studies show that sleep deprived people perform as poorly as or worse than intoxicated people on hand-eye coordination tasks, and driving simulations.
That, in itself should wake us up. Lack of sleep also negatively affects the immune and nervous systems as well as mood regulation and memory. Chronically overtired people can expect to experience difficulties in their relationships, in mental functions including memory, reaction time and judgment, and in their ability to fight infection.
Many behavioral health disorders can disrupt sleep. One of the most common symptoms of depression is frequent waking during the night or early morning waking. Anxiety disorders including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, panic disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder all interfere with normal sleeping patterns by preventing or interrupting sleep. Finally, alcohol and other substances are common and often unrecognized culprits in the sleep deprivation picture.
For this reason, a thorough mental and physical evaluation is necessary to pinpoint the cause of a sleep problem. Generally, adults require seven to eight hours of sleep per night. Babies require around 16 hours a day, while teenagers need about nine hours. A lot goes on while we're sleeping. Deep sleep in children and young adults is related to the production of growth hormones, while the cell regeneration and repair that goes on benefits people of all ages. We should never adapt to sleep deprivation because while you may adjust to it, you're really getting used to impaired functioning on all levels.
Unfortunately, the widespread practice of "burning the candle at both ends" in western industrialized societies has created so much sleep deprivation that what is really abnormal sleepiness is now almost the norm. Alcohol and other depressants may mask the problem because even though users are falling asleep, many of these substances prevent sleepers from entering Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, the stage of sleep when many of the regenerative processes take place.
You should suspect you aren't getting enough sleep if you feel drowsy during the day - even during boring activities. If you routinely fall asleep within five minutes of lying down, or you experience microsleeps, or very brief episodes of sleep during the day, you could have a sleep disorder.
Other signs of sleep disorders include taking more than 30 minutes to fall asleep; regularly waking throughout the night or early in the morning and being unable to get back to sleep; tingling or crawling sensations in your arms and legs relieved by movement or massage; or if your sleeping partner observes sudden jerking motions while you sleep, loud snoring, gasping or long pauses in breathing.
Any of these signs can point to a sleeping disorder and should be reported to your doctor or healthcare professional. There are sleep clinics which can identify the nature of the problem and provide solutions. Chronic insomnia and frequent waking can also point to depression, anxiety and substance abuse disorders and these must be considered as part of a thorough evaluation.
Getting a good night's sleep is within most people's grasp. By following a few simple rules, people can increase their chances of achieving good, regenerative sleep.
Stick to scheduled times to retire and get up - even on weekends and holidays. Don't eat a heavy meal or drink too much liquid close to bedtime. As much as possible, eliminate sleep disrupters such as light and noise. Do something relaxing before sleep such as reading, gentle stretching, meditation, watching TV or listening to music. If you can't fall asleep, don't just lie there in frustration. Get up and do something soothing. If you begin to associate insomnia with your bed, it will make falling asleep there all the more difficult.
As more and more is learned about the workings of the brain and the vital role of sleep in maintaining good physical, mental and emotional health, it is incumbent upon each of us to give our sleeping life the attention and, most importantly, the time it deserves.
Dr. Hawkins is a Board Certified Psychiatrist who practices inpatient and outpatient care. He is the Medical Director of the Geriatric Behavioral Health Unit at Marietta Memorial Hospital. Dr. Hawkins is a native of Marietta. For more information on mental health prevention and treatment, call Marietta Memorial Hospital at (740) 374-1501, or visit mmhospital.org.