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An "Epidemic" Of Sleeplessness

BusinessWeek Lifestyle: Health & Fitness

An "Epidemic" of Sleeplessness

It hurts your health. Here's how to catch up

Ever space out during a meeting, jerk awake while at your computer, or snooze through part of a TV show? Millions of Americans do, and that's cause for concern. A recent poll by the National Sleep Foundation, a nonprofit research group in Washington, found that two-thirds of the U.S. population gets less than the recommended hours of sleep at night. That means sleeplessness is of "epidemic proportions in this country," says Dr. William Dement, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Stanford University School of Medicine.

Whether it's the result of insomnia or today's burn-the-midnight-oil lifestyle, not getting enough sleep leads to poor judgment, lack of creativity, impaired memory, even depression. It also can make you more vulnerable to viral and bacterial infections. Researchers at the University of Chicago have found that inadequate sleep over just six nights impairs metabolic and hormonal functions. Over time, this can provoke the onset or increase the severity of hypertension and Type II diabetes, the more common form of that disease.

With 24-hour television, Internet surfing, and other late-night distractions, it's not easy to force yourself to get the 8 to 8 1/2 hours of sleep a night that experts say your body needs. But night after night of lost sleep accumulates into a sleep debt that needs to be repaid, says Dement, author of The Promise of Sleep (Dell Publishing, $14.95). If you have a sleep deficit, he suggests that you can pay it off in a lump sum by using vacation time to sleep until "you can sleep no more." After you've done that, your body won't need more than 8 hours or so, and you can adhere to a regular schedule.

If a lump-sum payment is not possible, Dr. Michael Thorpy, director of the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y., recommends getting at least an extra 15 to 30 minutes of sleep per night until "you find yourself fully alert during the day." That can take months.KING-SIZE BEDS. For some people, however, the problem is not so much setting aside time to sleep as falling asleep. Dr. Peter Hauri, director of the Mayo Sleep Disorders Center in Rochester, Minn., and author of No More Sleepless Nights (John Wiley & Sons, $15.95), says wakefulness is often the result of bad sleep habits. Sleeping in for hours on weekends, for example, confuses the body's internal clock and leads to wide-eyed nights and groggy mornings. So will long naps, although short ones (20 minutes or so) to pay back sleep lost the night before or in anticipation of a late night are O.K.

To train your body to get to sleep more easily, try these tips:

-- Stick to a regular bedtime schedule.

-- Try to avoid intense mental activities such as studying your stock portfolio before bedtime. Instead, consider deep breathing, yoga, or light stretching to alleviate the day's stress. Experts also advise keeping a notepad on your nightstand to jot down worries to be dealt with the next day. Turn such activities into a nightly ritual, just like brushing your teeth. Following the same routine night after night before bedtime seems to help prepare both the mind and the body for sleep.

-- Give yourself an optimal physical environment. Use a fan, air cleaner, or white-noise generator to drown out disturbing noise and create a soothing background. Keep it cool--people usually sleep best in rooms that are between 65 and 69 F. And make sure your bed is comfortable and has plenty of room. Sleep experts urge couples to consider a king so they won't disturb each other at night. (Doubles and queens give each adult about as much horizontal space as a baby's crib.)

-- Consider getting rid of or hiding your bedside clock. People who can't sleep tend to keep checking the time, which only heightens their anxiety about being awake.

-- Watch what you eat. Foods containing the sleep-inducing amino acid tryptophan (found in dairy products, beans, peanuts, poultry, and green leafy vegetables) are good choices for dinner or a nighttime snack. You may want to avoid caffeine even during the day because its stimulative effects linger long after consumption. Hidden sources of caffeine include some over-the-counter pain and cold remedies such as Anacin, Excedrin, and Dristan.

-- Limit alcohol consumption and avoid tobacco. Alcohol can produce troubled sleep. Smoking stimulates the system as much as an ice-cold shower.

-- Do exercise. Studies confirm that moderate aerobic activity at least three days a week promotes sound sleep. But take care not to exercise within four hours before hitting the hay; otherwise, it tends to have the reverse effect. One nighttime physical activity that may actually help sleep is sex, which can have a sedating effect, says Gary Zammit, director of the Sleep Disorders Institute in New York. On the other hand, it may worsen the problem for some insomniacs.HERBAL TEA. If sleep still won't come within 20 minutes of retiring, get out of bed. Read or watch TV somewhere else until your eyelids droop and then try again. The standard advice is to reserve the bed for sex and sleep only, says Zammit.

Of course, you can always try other sleep aids. Certain herb teas, such as chamomile, rosemary, skullcap, and lemon balm, are worth a shot, say sleep experts. Most advise against experimenting with melatonin, a hormone promoted as nature's sleeping pill. Produced in the pineal gland in mammals, melatonin helps regulate the body's sleep-wake cycle, in addition to other functions, including reproduction. It is unclear whether taking melatonin as a supplement induces sleep. Furthermore, physicians worry that too much of the hormone could lead to chronic insomnia and sterility.

More rigorously studied is a prescription drug called Sonata from Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories that was approved by the Food & Drug Administration last year. Sonata induces sleep without morning-after side effects such as grogginess and memory loss associated with other sleep aids, says Zammit. This is because Sonata, unlike older sedatives such as Ambien, Valium, and Halcion, gets out of your system quickly so "you can take it in the middle of the night" and get up after a few hours. But like other sleeping pills, Sonata is indicated only for "occasional use such as after a very high-stress day," says the Mayo Clinic's Hauri.

If sleep trouble or daytime drowsiness persists, consult a doctor. Thyroid and kidney disorders are among possible health problems that can produce insomnia. Regardless of the cause, experts warn that you shouldn't play down chronic lack of sleep. Physically and mentally, you lose when you don't snooze.By Kate MurphyReturn to top

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