By Dr. Cindy Haines, author of The New Prescription: How to Get the Best Health Care in a Broken System (HCI Books, May 2011)
Americans seem to be a sleepy bunch of people. It's hard to walk into a convenience store or supermarket without seeing an array of energy drinks and shots, which are intended to open your eyes and raise your alertness. However, skipping too much sleep may lead to health problems that are worse than feeling groggy in the afternoon -- problems that can't be fixed with a caffeinated drink.
Maybe we're finding too many other things to do that are more interesting than going to bed. A just-released poll from the National Sleep Foundation uncovered some interesting habits that are common among Americans: [http://www.sleepfoundation.org/alert/sleepy-connected-americans]
Nearly half - 43 percent - of people ages 13 to 64 say they rarely or never sleep well during the week.
Nearly everyone who answered the survey sometimes watches TV or uses a computer, video game, or cell phone shortly before bed.
Nearly 10 percent of teenagers are awakened on most nights, or even every night, by a phone call, text message, or email (at least young people planning to become doctors will be prepared for the constant nighttime alerts from their pagers).
And the average person, young and old, drinks about three 12-ounce caffeinated beverages on a weekday.
This poll comes on the heels of a lot of scientific research looking into some of the possible consequences of getting too little sleep (or too much sleep, whoever these people may be).
In a study from a recent issue of the European Heart Journal, researchers compiled 15 earlier studies with nearly 500,000 participants. They found that people who slept for short durations had a 48-percent higher risk of developing or dying of coronary heart disease and a 15-percent higher risk of having a stroke or dying of one. Sleeping a lot, however, was linked to a higher risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, and total cardiovascular disease.
In a February study from Denmark, researchers followed nearly 17,000 people for nearly 20 years after asking them in 1990 about any sleep issues they had. Having sleep disturbances was associated with a higher overall risk of dying in men (and a higher risk of suicide), and a greater likelihood of developing high blood pressure and diabetes in both men and women.
When you consider how your health can get worn down after too-little sleep week after week, month after month, and year after year, it makes sense to evaluate your schedule and see where you can make some fixes to provide yourself more shut-eye.
Sleep experts commonly recommend the following steps, which really can improve your chances of getting enough sleep:
Keep the same bedtime and wake-up schedule throughout the week and on the weekends.
Calm down before bed. Keep a relaxing pre-bedtime routine that doesn't involve paying bills, playing computer games, or watching violent TV shows or movies. Ask your friends to stop texting or calling after bedtime unless it's an emergency.