Are you sleep deprived?

Ben Franklin popularized the importance of a good night’s sleep when he advised the Puritans of his day: “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” The problem is few Americans seem to be taking his advice these days.

Researcher Katherine Sharkey, assistant professor of medicine, psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, found that the average American is sleep deprived. Unlike our forebears who got around nine hours of sleep, we’re getting an average of six, she said.

Katherine Sharkey discusses sleep.
On April 28, in a lecture sponsored by RIC’s Office of Health Promotion, Sharkey explained everything you wanted to know about sleep but was too tired to ask. Sharkey was bright and bubbly like someone who . . . well, had had a good night’s sleep.

Each morning the average bleary-eyed American lines up in search of caffeine. Soda and coffee cup lids pop and fizz all across America so that people can wake up and get going. But nothing, according to Sharkey, can make up for sleep loss short of a good night’s sleep.

Sleep deprivation depletes your physical health, your productivity, and your mental functioning, Sharkey said. It causes high blood pressure, diabetes, mood disorders, depression, memory loss, and public safety problems, such as car accidents.

Why are we so sleep deprived?

“If you’re having trouble sleeping,” Sharkey said, “there may be something other than your mattress that’s keeping you awake. Look at the time you’re going to bed. The vast majority of sleep disorders come from simply not going to bed on time.”

So, what’s a good time to go to bed? According to Sharkey, sleep requirements are not a one-size-fits-all. It’s highly individual.

If you’re falling asleep in less than half an hour, if you’re waking up without an alarm clock, and if you’re not feeling sleepy during the day, you’re probably getting enough sleep, she said. But if you don’t feel refreshed when you wake up, chances are you’re not sleeping enough.

Sharkey described the normal sleep cycle as beginning with non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. That’s when your breathing and heart rate slows down and you’re just chilled out. Then you move to REM sleep. In REM sleep, your brain is as active as it is during wakefulness; your breathing and heart rate become more irregular. This is the phase where most dreaming occurs.

“People move up and down, from non-REM to REM sleep, in four to five discrete episodes,” Sharkey said. “People with sleep disorders experience disruptions in their sleep cycle. They wake up and feel like they didn’t sleep at all.”

Sharkey makes a point about sleep research in a forum on April 28 at RIC.
The causes of sleep disruptions, Sharkey said, include insomnia, obstructive sleep apnea (the cessation of breathing for more than 10 seconds while sleeping), restless leg syndrome (a creepy crawling sensation in the legs), and periodic limb movement disorder (kicking the legs repetitively during sleep). She said some of these problems can be cured with medication.

For women, she said, sleep disorders may be the effects of pregnancy, menopause or aging.

For a good night’s sleep, Sharkey recommends the following:
• Have a consistent sleep-wake schedule, even on weekends.
• Create a regular, relaxing bedtime routine—soak in a bath, listen to soothing music—and begin this an hour or more before the time you expect to fall asleep.
• Make sure the environment is dark, quiet, comfortable and cool.
• Sleep on a comfortable mattress and pillow.
• Avoid TV, the computer and reading in the bedroom.
• Finish eating at least two to three hours before bedtime.
• Avoid caffeine and alcohol and quit smoking.

If setting the stage for sleep is key, you will be counting sleep cycles instead of sheep before long. And conversations around the bubbler at the office might be, “How many REMs did you do last night?” That’s about as good as sleep gets.

Katherine Sharkey’s research is based on resources gathered by the National Sleep Foundation and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. She does her research work out of the EP Bradley Hospital Sleep Research Laboratory and has a private practice at the University Medicine Sleep Center.