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The Quiet Epidemic of Sleep Loss

sleep loss

Time to Say Goodbye to Sleep Loss

There is a new article in the Washington Post on the importance of sleep. I first blogged on this in 2006(!), and I have blogged on this topic a few times over the years. But it seemed to be a good time for an update and refresher on sleep loss. Simply put, there is a sleep loss crisis in America. In a 1942 Gallup poll, American adults reported getting about 7.9 hours of sleep per night. More recently, in 2013, that number had dropped by over an hour.

Basically, every major area of human functioning takes a hit when we suffer sleep loss. These include:

  • Memory
  • Concentration
  • Cognitive abilities (e.g., solving problems)
  • Immune system functioning
  • Weight (i.e., weight gain due to chronic sleep loss)
  • Immune system functioning
  • Cardiovascular health
  • Mood

New research even indicates that we might be at a greater risk for developing Alzheimer’s Disease due to sleep loss. Although it might not be “sexy” news, getting a good night’s sleep is one of the best things we can do to improve our physical and emotional well-being. I consider it to be a “low-hanging fruit” to our well-being. Before searching for other ways to improve our well-being, we should start with the basics. Sleep is definitely on that short list.

Getting Versus Needing

Here’s one of those odd things about sleep loss. There’s a big difference between how much we get and how much we need. People often conflate these two things. That is, when they say, “I only need 6 hours of sleep per night” what they really mean is, “I am only getting 6 hours of sleep per night.” Most adults need 7-8 hours per night. Teens need about 9-10 (my teen needs about 12!). Kids need about 11-12.

Many of us think we function fine on less than optimal sleep. That it doesn’t make a difference. However, in well-controlled studies, time and time again, the results indicate that pretty much every metric of well-being diminishes with sleep loss. It is just the case that most of us have become accustomed to sleep loss that it feels normal. But it’s like breathing polluted air over a long period of time. If we have never experienced what breathing clean, crisp mountain air feels like because we’ve only been breathing polluted city air, we don’t even know what we are missing.

Evolutionary Mismatch

I recently blogged about the tribalism that is dividing us in America. One of the factors that contributes to both tribalism and our problems of sleep loss is called evolutionary mismatch. We evolved over the course of millions of years to live in a world very different from today. Simply put, when we live in a way that is incongruent with our evolutionary heritage, we will pay a price. Our need for sleep hasn’t changed in tens of thousands of years. Due to the demands of work, our home lives, and the Siren’s call of screens, we are getting less sleep than the amount nature “designed” us to get. The price of sleep loss due to this evolutionary mismatch is the hits on our physical and emotional well-being.

My Journey Out of Sleep Loss

I will admit to being a convert on the importance of sleep. I was sleep-deprived though much of my youth, had a very irregular sleep pattern in college, and graduate school really put the squeeze on my sleep. Not long after getting my license in psychology, my wife and I started having kids. While our kids are wonderful, they certainly did affect our sleep in those early years! Basically, I had gotten used to dealing with fatigue and certain levels of irritability.

As I started seeing clients back-to-back all day during my early years of private practice, I noticed that I really had a lull in energy in early to mid-afternoons. I decided to work on my sleep loss, and it made a difference right off the bat. I had a greater levels of alertness, energy, thinking clarity, and optimism right away. I also didn’t need to drink as much coffee!


A number of years ago, I started wearing a Fitbit to track my sleep. To my surprise, despite some improvements to my sleep, I was often getting more like 6-6.5 hours per night during the week. I thought I was getting more like 7-7.25 hours. What I learned was that I was not taking into account the time it took me to fall asleep, lost time for getting up at night to use the bathroom, to fall back to sleep, etc. By the end of the week, I was incurring a 3-5 hour sleep deficit, which can really make a difference. So, thanks to my Fitbit, I’ve made adjustments to my sleep schedule and now average around 7 hours per night.

What You Can Do to Improve Sleep

There are a number of strategies that you can use to improve your sleep. Here are just a few.

  • Try to keep a regular sleep schedule/routine
  • Track your sleep to see how much you are actually getting per night
  • Avoid caffeine in the afternoons
  • Avoid exercising at least 2-3 hours before bedtime
  • Remove screens from your room and don’t interact with them at least 30 minutes before bed. The blue light emitted by screens suppresses melatonin, a hormone involved in the sleep/wake cycle.
  • Read before going to bed and have a book handy in case you have trouble falling to sleep or you wake up
  • Dim the lights as you get near bedtime. Keep the room dark when you go to sleep.
  • Try using a white noise maker

The Takeaway?

Sleep is one the most important things we can do to improve our functioning. Most likely, you are suffering from at least periodic, if not chronic, sleep loss. Just as an experiment, commit to getting more sleep per night. Use some of the strategies that I’ve recommended or track down some more on the web. Do this for at least one week. Notice your mood and productivity. Notice whether you seem to be more optimistic and have more energy. If you have a partner, enlist him/her to give you their perceptions of you as you try this experiment. Chances are, a happier you will mean a happier partner and family. What do you have to lose – besides sleep loss?

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