Can’t Sleep? That’s Nothing to Brag About

You would never boast about having donuts for breakfast or skipping the gym. So why is it OK to brag about not getting enough sleep?

What do Bill Clinton, Martha Stewart and Thomas Edison all have in common? They accomplished a lot on very little sleep. Edison reportedly only slept three to four hours a night, while Stewart sneaks in four before going back to running her home decor empire. Clinton’s restricted sleep started way before his presidential term demanded it — apparently he was influenced early by a Georgetown professor who told him “great men require less sleep.”

These high-profile sleep-shunners seem to have convinced many Americans that cutting back on Zzz’s is the best way to get to the top. As many as 40 percent of Americans get less than the minimum seven hours a night, a recent Gallup Poll found. Between 10 to 15 percent of Americans don’t get enough sleep because of a sleep-inhibiting medical condition, researchers estimate. That means the other 25 to 30 percent are sleep-deprived because they don’t let themselves get enough rest.

“It’s trendy not to sleep,” said Shelby Harris, Psy.D, director of behavioral sleep medicine at the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at Montefiore Medical Center. “It’s better to be productive and go, go go. The thing I hear all the time is that ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead.’”

It’s this emphasis on productivity that traps a lot of people, said Wei-Shin Lai, MD, a family medicine doctor at Pennsylvania State University.

Nicole Palma, a 30-year-old full-time pharmacy student who also works part-time and volunteers in a hospital pharmacy, is no stranger to poor sleep. On a good night she gets around six hours, while on a bad night “it’s closer to three,” she says. Palma knows her poor sleeping habits are bad for her, but she hasn’t retooled her schedule to allow for more.

“For many years, the culture was that sleeping is for the weak, it’s not important, and it’s considered time when we’re not doing something productive,” Dr. Lai said. But that message has backfired, leading to lower rates of productivity and an increased risk for disease.

Media mogul Arianna Huffington is among a handful of high-profile people changing the conversation. She says getting enough sleep has been integral to her success, and the Huffington Post features nap rooms to make sure employees are getting enough shut-eye.

Problems With Not Sleeping

There are several health reasons to follow Huffington’s example and begin logging more sleep.

Many people believe it’s “macho to be able to go without sleep,” said Robert Rosenberg, DO, who runs a private practice in sleep medicine in Arizona and blogs about sleep for Everyday Health. But contrary to that belief, several studies have shown that chronically getting too little sleep puts people at higher risk for health problems including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and even premature death, Rosenberg said.

If the slew of health issues isn’t enough to scare you into rethinking your schedule, there are another benefits of sleeping enough that might convince you to set an earlier bedtime.

You’re actually more efficient when you sleep enough. It may feel like you’re getting more accomplished with the extra hours in which you’re persistently staying awake, but scientific research is firmly on the other side.

“If you don’t sleep enough, you’re driven more by the lower levels of brain function,” Lai explained. “You need caffeine for higher levels of the brain to function.” Tired people are both less efficient and more likely to make mistakes.

Research investigating children as young as four years old shows that sleeping more increased the kids’ social skills and engagement, vocabulary, empathy and acceptance from their peers, according to a paper published in Behavioral Sleep Medicine. In older adults, studies have linked not sleeping enough to trouble focusing and cognitive decline. Another study, from researchers at Harvard, suggests that medical errors could be reduced by 36 percent if doctors were limited to working 16 hours a day, and no more than 80 hours a week.

Sleepiness causes more mundane distraction, too. Research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology showed that the day after daylight saving time, people are more likely to “cyberloaf,” meaning they spend more time searching the Internet for non-work-related content.

Rather than staying up to do more, people need to realize that going to bed might actually make them more productive, said Anda Baharav, MD, chief scientist and founder of SleepRate, a smartphone application that aims to improve people’s sleep.

“They would achieve much more on the entire spectrum — in fitness, in health, in social,” Dr. Baharav said. “People have to understand that sleep is not a waste of time.”

What You Can Do About It

The chronically sleep-deprived pharmacy student Palma said that she realizes that she’s less efficient than she’d like to be, but she hasn’t figured out how to get out of the cycle. “I think that just contributes to it, because you’re tired and you don’t get things done and then you’re up later trying to finish them,” she said.

Short of going to a sleep lab, there used to be limited options for how a person could figure out their sleep problems, but that’s changing.

A plethora of apps have been developed to help measure how much people are sleeping. Palma says she already uses a meditation app to help her get to sleep some nights, and she’s been experimenting with light therapy as well. Experts’ opinions vary on how accurate they are, but most sleep doctors agree that the trend is encouraging. Even if the apps aren’t 100 percent accurate, at least they’re raising awareness that you should be hitting a certain target number of hours each night, and helping people keep better track of whether they are or aren’t.

For example, Harris tells her sleep patients to keep a sleep diary of how much rest they’re getting to try to pinpoint the problem. Many aspects of these sleep apps are basically just a digital diary, she said. Others, like SleepBot, try to record your movement overnight to tell you how well you slept. Sleep Cycle asks you for a window when you’d like to be woken, so the alarm can ring when it senses you’re sleeping most lightly, for a gentler arousal.

Uli Gal-Oz, the CEO of SleepRate, and Baharav say that apps are an optimal solution because people are constantly connected with their phones already. Their SleepRate app works with a heart rate monitor to measure someone’s sleep habits over a week-long test, and then it creates a personalized, new sleep schedule to help improve sleep habits.

“A mobile phone does a lot of stuff for you,” Gal-Oz said, noting that because you’re constantly in touch with your phone, you’re more likely to comply with the recommendations.

There are solutions beyond apps, too. Lai herself suffered from long hours due to her work as a doctor, and her sleep was often interrupted and sporadic. In order to get proper sleep at the weird hours when she was able to nod off, she created SleepPhones, a warm fleece-y band that can serve as a sleep mask and also contains wireless headphones that can play music or calming white noise to promote sleepiness.

The SleepPhones allowed Lai to be more in control of how much sleep she was getting, without interrupting her husband’s schedule. Pretty soon, she started recommending them to patients, and the once home-made bands have grown into a full company. Lai says the response from users has been overwhelming — one woman told her the headphones helped her come off of sleeping pills after 10 years.

Susan E. Matthews