The Sleep Deprivation Epidemic
Although it varies slightly with age, we require at least 7 to 8 hours of quality sleep on our millet pillow each night to repair and restore our body and mind. Sleep is critical to our well-being, functioning, and safety.
Yet, despite its importance, many of us (young kids and teens included) aren’t getting enough. Many concerned doctors and sleep experts are declaring this a sleep deprivation epidemic. Kids, teens, and adults aren’t getting nearly enough of the quality sleep they need, and it has dire consequences.
This isn’t a new issue – it’s a problem that’s been repeatedly been flagged for years. In 2018, Sleep Science published an article entitled Insufficient Sleep Syndrome: Is it time to classify it as a major non-communicable disease. Each decade the average total number of sleep hours declines and the authors of the paper believed that health authorities needed to raise sleep awareness to prevent serious consequences.
The following year similar sentiments and research were shared in another journal. According to these authors, “Globally, insufficient sleep is prevalent across various age groups, considered to be a public health epidemic that is often unrecognized, under-reported, and that has rather high economic costs.”
A life-threatening cost of the sleep deprivation epidemic is public safety. A UK article published last week stated that sleep-deprived medical staff pose the same danger on the roads as drunk drivers! According to the National Department of Transportation, an estimated 1550 driving fatalities and 40,000 nonfatal injuries are caused by drowsy driving. Additionally, when medical professionals are exhausted, they are less empathetic, less vigilant, and their reasoning is compromised. This is a high risk to patients under their care as they are not as equipped to handle emergency situations or engage and listen to patients.
Sleep deprivation is also very dangerous for those who operate heavy machinery, whether that be driving a big rig cross-country or using a forklift in a warehouse. One of the most significant risks to these workers is micro-sleep. Micro-sleep is an uncontrollable, spontaneous sleep lapse that occurs in those who repeatedly don’t get enough sleep. When driving, micro-sleep can cause deadly errors and accidents.
These sleep related errors have been the leading cause of some of the world’s biggest disasters. These disasters could have been prevented if sleep was prioritized the way it should be. For example, in 1986, two catastrophic disasters were caused by long shifts and exhausted employees.
On April 26 in Chernobyl, Ukraine, a power plant exploded, causing death and long-term health issues. Those who worked at the plant worked 13-hour shifts, getting very little sleep which ultimately led to the human error responsible for the explosion.
Earlier that same year in Florida, USA, the Challenger exploded after being in the sky for a mere 70 seconds. All crew members were killed. This was also caused by human error, as the managers and staff were all overworked to meet the launch date, with many getting only a couple of hours of sleep the night before.
A few years later, in Alaska, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez crashed into the Bligh Reef. The Captain, Helmsman, and Third Mate had moved the tanker to avoid ice but then failed to correct course. After an investigation, it was revealed that the Third Mate who was responsible for moving the tanker had only gotten two hours of sleep before the crash.
Since these incidents and many others like them, various industries and governments have enforced new regulations around sleep. Unfortunately, although this is helpful, there are many who are still carrying on daily tasks like sleep-deprived zombies.
Like overworked employees, teens are at greater risk for sleep deprivation, yet very little is being done to rectify the issue. The age group is subject to the sleep deprivation epidemic because of lifestyle and puberty. Research has shown that school start times don’t align with a teenager's natural sleep cycle. With the onset of puberty, a teenager's circadian rhythm shifts to a later schedule. So, when you find your teenager not going to bed until much later – it’s not necessarily by choice. Melatonin in teens isn’t released until later and doesn’t recede until their older. This is why they often aren’t tried until the late evening. Combined with increased cellphone use and gaming, it makes it much harder for youth to fall asleep before midnight.
Teens also require more sleep than the average adult, with the National Sleep Foundation recommending between 8 and 10 hours! Yet, despite what science has told us about teenage sleep cycles, some school bells are going off at 7:30 AM, resulting in students that can barely keep their eyes open.
Although you can do things to help your teenager sleep better and get enough sleep, there also needs to be systematic changes. Lisa Lewis, a mother of two, author and sleep activist, couldn’t stand by and watch her own teen suffer through this. She wrote the recently released book The Sleep-Deprived Teen: Why Our Teenagers are So Tired, And How Parents and Schools Can Help Them Thrive and was a crucial player in sparking the first law in the country for better school start times. The American Academy of Pediatrics also released a report that high school should not start earlier than 8:30 AM.
Demanding jobs and school responsibilities have contributed to this epidemic. For example, Arianna Huffington, powerful media mogul and creator of the Huffington Post, worked herself to exhaustion and ended up in the hospital in 2007. It was a life-changing event that altered how she and her company worked. To her, sleeping on the job isn’t a bad thing – in fact, it’s encouraged! She had nap rooms put into offices so employees could catch some Z’s if they were feeling sleepy.
Countries with a demanding workforce and work culture tend to sleep the worst. According to a Sleep Cycle survey, Japan which is notorious for this intense work-life, sleeps the least. In Japanese, there is a term “karoshi,” which is a legal cause of death, meaning “death by overwork.” Reports say that 25% of Japanese companies require 80 hours of overtime a month, leaving employees sleep-deprived!
Sleep deprivation has reached epidemic proportions in the US as well. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stated that sleep disorders have reached epidemic proportions. About 60 million US citizens are believed to have insomnia – an alarming number that contributes to other significant health issues.
Research has concluded that roughly 15% of Alzheimer’s disease cases can be attributed to sleep problems. In addition, those with chronic sleep troubles are about 1.5 times more likely to get Alzheimer’s disease than those with normal sleep. A lack of sleep is also attributed to type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and depression.
Sleep loss has an effect on the economy as well. McKinsey reported that an estimated $680 billion is lost in five OECD countries, with $400 billion lost in the United States alone. In addition, an estimated ten million working hours are lost a year due to sleep-related absence, which negatively impacts productivity. This economic cost is furthered by the increase in healthcare costs from sleep-related injuries and illnesses.
The good news is – this epidemic is preventable. By prioritizing time spent on your millet pillow each night, you will reduce your chance of making grave errors at work, a motor vehicle crash, and acquiring one of the diseases listed above.
The tech industry is also tackling the sleep loss epidemic head-on. Various technological solutions like wearable sleep trackers are bringing more awareness to sleep and our lack of it. These consumer wearables are investigating sleep in relation to demographic, socioeconomic, and lifestyle factors and markers such as health and aging. Academics and physicians believe increased access to this vital information will help professionals treat sleep disorders more effectively. For example, now that we have a better understanding of the effect of light exposure and how it impacts sleep-wake activity, we can adjust our behaviors as well as technology to improve sleep.
Making lifestyle changes and helping set your circadian rhythm with a natural sleep aid can help get your sleep schedule back on track. If you find you have too much on your plate to get to bed earlier, see where you can cut back. Sleep needs to be a priority, and no one can do it for you.
It will take time to make up for prolonged sleep loss. If you have not gotten enough rest night after night, it will take much more than a Sunday morning sleep-in to recover. Recent research revealed that when people slept 30% less than needed for ten consecutive nights, they had not wholly recovered cognitively after seven nights of unrestricted sleep. Don’t wait for the weekend to “catch up on sleep”. You need 8 hours of quality sleep, and there is no better time to start prioritizing your sleep than now! So, turn down the thermostat, take a natural sleep aid, put your electronics away, and cozy into bed for the rest you deserve and need!