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Sleepless in America

What's Keeping You Up All Night? Why Is Sleep So Important Information For Families How To Get A Better Night's Sleep Are You Moody Or Irritable? Get Sleep Tools


Why Is Sleep So Important?

We sleep to restore brain chemicals and rest the body. Some researchers believe that the brain organizes and stores memories during sleep. Lack of sleep can affect our daytime functioning, hormonal balance, appetite, and immune system.

We have internal clocks that tell us when we need to sleep. They cause us to feel alert when the sun is up and drowsy when it’s down. We are sleepiest between midnight and 6 a.m. , and between 1 and 3 p.m. That’s why some cultures have afternoon siestas (naps).

How much sleep do we need?

  • Babies: 16 hours per day
  • Children: 9-16 hours per day
  • Teenagers: 9 hours per day
  • Adults: most need 7-8 hours, but some may need as few as 5 or as many as 10
  • Pregnant women may need more sleep than usual
  • Older adults may sleep for shorter periods of time, more often.

What is good sleep?

Good sleep is restful and uninterrupted. Your muscles are relaxed. Your body rearranges itself once or twice each hour so your blood circulates. You go through the five sleep stages several times. You spend at least two hours dreaming, during which your brain tries to make sense of random thoughts and brain signals. Your body’s cells produce and store proteins to renew and restore all of your systems.

What are the stages of sleep?

  • Stage 1 (10%) It’s easy to be awakened from stage 1 sleep. You may experience slight muscle contractions that give you the sensation of falling.
  • Stage 2 (45-50%) Brain waves slow down, body temperature drops, breathing and heart rate remain constant.
  • Stages 3 and 4  (20%) You enter deep sleep. Your brain waves change from the waking alpha and beta waves to slower theta and delta waves. It is hardest to wake you up. Your blood pressure drops and your breathing slows.
  • REM (rapid eye movement) (20-25%) Your heart rate increases, your blood pressure rises, males get erections, and you lose some ability to regulate your body temperature. Most dreams occur during this stage.

As the night goes on, periods of REM sleep increase in length while deep sleep time decreases. If you’re deprived of REM sleep one night, you may go into it earlier the following night to catch up.

What are some brain chemicals involved in sleep?

  • Serotonin is a chemical that affects mood, emotion, sleep and appetite. Many antidepressants affect the amount of serotonin in the brain, and can also affect a person’s sleep. People beginning treatment with a new antidepressant may feel drowsier than usual for the first couple of weeks.
  • Norepinephrine is another brain chemical that affects stress response, heart rate, blood pressure, breathing and metabolism. Antidepressants may also work on the activity and levels of norepinephrine.
  • Adenosine is a chemical that builds up in the blood when a person is awake and causes drowsiness. Adenosine is formed when the larger compound, adenosine triphosphate (ATP) breaks down and releases energy. Caffeine blocks the action of adenosine and keeps a person awake. Studies for future sleep medications focus on ways to affect a person’s adenosine levels. Adenosine also affects the heart and circulatory system.

Who has problems with sleep?

Anyone can have a sleep problem. Many people accept it as normal, and few people seek the help they need from their doctors.

You might have a sleep problem if:

  • You consistently don’t get enough sleep or have poor quality sleep
  • You wake up feeling like you didn’t get any rest
  • You have trouble staying awake while driving
  • You struggle to stay awake while inactive, such as sitting reading or watching TV
  • You yawn or blink frequently
  • You have difficulty paying attention or concentrating
  • You have disconnected thoughts or frequent daydreams
  • You have performance problems at work or school
  • You are told by others that you look tired
  • You have memory problems
  • You have a slow reaction time
  • You have mood swings
  • You need naps often
  • You start dreaming right away when you fall asleep

What can happen when you don’t sleep?

  • Day 1 - You will probably be tired and irritable. You may feel “wired” because your body produces extra adrenalin, or you may feel slowed down because of fatigue.
  • Day 2 - You will probably have trouble concentrating and your attention span will shorten considerably. You are likely to make more mistakes at work. You shouldn’t drive or operate heavy machinery.
  • Day 3 - You will probably have extreme difficulty thinking clearly and you may see things that aren’t there or believe things that aren’t true.

Does napping help?

 If you aren’t getting enough sleep at night, sleep in the afternoon or evening is better than none at all. But napping may make it more difficult to fall asleep at night.

A short nap (about 30 minutes) can re-energize you and help you get on with your day. You may feel slightly groggy when you wake up, but a good nap can improve your alertness for several hours.

If you are sleep-deprived, be extra careful during the two prime sleep times ( 12-6 a.m. and 1-3 p.m. ) when the body has a natural tendency toward sleep. Don’t drive or use heavy machinery during these times if you’re sleep deprived.

When should you see a doctor about sleep problems?

You should see a doctor if your sleep problem is interfering with your work, school, relationships, or other important parts of your life. Or discuss sleep with your doctor when you go in for your yearly checkup.

Things to tell your doctor

  • How much sleep you usually get per night
  • How long it takes you to fall asleep
  • How restful your sleep is
  • What times you usually fall asleep and wake up
  • Whether you snore, how loudly and how often
  • Whether you are drowsy during the day
  • Whether you have trouble concentrating, irritability or mood swings
  • Any alcohol, illegal drug use or cigarette smoking
  • Any over-the-counter drug or supplements you use to help you sleep
  • Times of day you eat, exercise and drink caffeine
  • Other physical conditions (especially heartburn, chronic pain or frequent urination) you have and medications you take