Why Don’t Americans Get Enough Sleep?

We’re only getting 6.8 hours of sleep a night. Here’s why.

Feeling sleepy? You’re not alone. Americans get less and less sleep every year, a recent Gallup poll found. Today, we average just 6.8 hours a night, less than the doctor-recommended 7-9, and down by over an hour from 1942, when Americans got closer to 8 hours per night.

Why Don’t Americans Sleep Enough?

Reasons why we’re not getting enough sleep abound, but one of the biggest changes behind the sleep decline is the availability of electricity and technological advances that allow us to work and play 24/7.

“With artificial lighting we’ve been able to fool our brain and internal clocks that it’s still daylight and remain alert,” said Phyllis C. Zee, MD, PhD, a neurology professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and director of its Sleep Disorders Center in Chicago. “Bedtimes have become later, but wake times have not. The result is a sleep-deprived society.”

Recent advances in technology have also led to a surge in screen time with televisions, personal computers, tablets, and smartphones — electronic devices that emit blue light that can hurt sleep.

“Exposure to blue light can suppress melatonin, which allows you to transition to sleep,” said Alyssa Cairns, PhD, a sleep research scientist at SleepMed Inc. in Columbia, S.C. “If it’s suppressed, you are not able to fall asleep as easily.”

In addition, using computers and phones for playing interactive games and social networking can activate and excite the brain, making it harder to fall asleep. For example, a 2011 National Sleep Foundation poll found that people who texted in the hour before bed were less likely to report getting a good night’s sleep.

Less Time for Sleep

Along with the rise in technology, increasing demands on your time means less of it is available for sleep.

“I see more people trying to cram more into a 24-hour day more aggressively than they did 20 to 25 years ago,” said Helene A. Emsellem, MD, medical director of the Center for Sleep & Wake Disorders in Chevy Chase, Md., and a clinical professor of neurology at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “There is a huge increase in people carrying two jobs, working more hours, and more focus on trying to find time to exercise.”

Ironically, Americans’ focus on health may be hurting our health. “I see people sleep-deprived because they got up early to exercise,” Dr. Emsellem said.

Sleep Affects Health (and Vice Versa)

Failing to make sleep a priority can affect your health, and poor health can also affect your sleep. The health consequences of getting less than about 6 hours of sleep a night include a higher risk for memory problems, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, infections, and depression, said Dr. Zee. “On the other hand, overweight and obesity increases the risk for poor sleep quality, in part due to sleep apnea,” she said, which is disrupted sleep caused by short but repeated interruptions in breathing.

How to Get More Sleep

Try these tips to add to your zzz’s:

  • The first step to getting more sleep is to make sleep a priority and keep a regular schedule that allows for enough shut-eye. For most adults, that’s 7-9 hours a night.
  • “Keep weekdays and weekends on the same schedule, give or take an hour or hour and a half,” said Emsellem. “Huge swings in your schedule can make it difficult to sleep.”
  • If you do have a bad night’s sleep, don’t try to make up for it by going to bed much earlier the next day — that can make it harder to fall asleep. Instead, try to make up for lost sleep with a short nap, about 20 to 30 minutes, but take it long before 4 p.m. so that it won’t interfere with nighttime sleep.
  • Include a wind-down period at the end of the day to help ease the transition to sleep. Dim the lights and try calming activities like taking a warm shower, doing some gentle upper-body stretches, or reading before bed.
  • Turn off all electronics at least 15 to 20 minutes before bed. Try keeping smartphones, laptops, and tablets out of the bedroom to reduce the temptation to check email after five minutes of lying in bed,
  • Finally, if you can’t sleep after at least 15 minutes in bed, get up, do something relaxing, and then go back and try again.

Jennifer Warner