This Sunday the clocks fall back, and we all may need an extra nap.
I have often wondered why nap time is reserved for young children, who totally fail to appreciate it, when it is clearly needed by working adults.
A large body of evidence shows that naps are healthy. But that is another story. The mere mention of “nap time” brings such vigorous and instant enthusiasm among American workers that exhaustion appears to be their normal state.
The National Sleep Foundation is the expert in the field, and based on best evidence, it recommends seven to nine hours per night for adults between the ages 18 and 65. This is a bell curve, like most medical studies.
Approximately 2% of this working age group can remain healthy on six hours per night, and the same percentage on 10 hours per night. This 2% must be the granddaddy of all small percentages because 90% of us are convinced we reside in this group. We are all fooling ourselves by getting only four or five hours of sleep, propping ourselves up with coffee, Red Bull or electroshock therapy, and hoping for the best.
I personally use a stand-up desk for my heart, but have found it is effective in keeping me from nodding off in front of my computer. And, by relying less on coffee, you save time by making fewer trips to the restroom. While this works, it doesn’t fix the performance issues that go along with a chronic lack of sufficient sleep. I’m afraid you still can’t fool Mother Nature.
We spend the majority of our waking hours at work, so our sleep habits directly affect our job performance. I learned this lesson 25 years ago during my residency training. Getting in my car after a night or two on call, I vividly remember thinking I was unfit to drive. I knew that my timing and coordination were nonexistent. The research shows I was not wrong. Missing a single night’s sleep makes you perform like you have a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 or more – legally drunk.
If you like percentiles, (especially where everybody is above average), the simple lack of sleep puts you in the bottom 10%. The more mentally challenging the job, the more drastic the effect. Sleep-impaired people are sullen and grumpy, going about their duties in a robot-like manner. The normal communication that keeps people safe in a hazardous work environment doesn’t happen. Accidents and injuries both predictably increase. And this behavior, or lack of, is contagious.
The effects of short sleep rations costs this nation annually tens of billions of dollars in lost productivity and injured employees.
Are sleeping pills the answer? They are among the best-selling and most profitable medications. It is no coincidence that you cannot think of sleep without thinking of dreamy, luminescent butterflies, and a particular type of sleeping pill. The over-the-counter market also sells sleeping aids (antihistamines) and melatonin (a brain hormone). Any of these may help for a night, but the sleeping pill may still affect you the next day as well, while you are trying to be alert and productive at work. This can be problematic. Prescription “sleepers” have some weird side effects, like retrograde amnesia, in which you may have traveled or even gotten married, and have zero recall.
What you won’t hear is that these medications cause you to sleep an average of 11 minutes sooner, or longer. Now you know what your sleep is worth – about 50 cents a minute.
People on sleeping pills have an increased accident rate, which is one of those darned if you do, darned if you don’t type of things. Another oddity associated with sleeping pill use: a 35% increase in cancer. But the sleeping pills aren’t the cause. The culprit is probably behavior that is more frequent in the dead hours of night – maybe bacon and eggs and a cigarette seem like a better idea at 3 a.m. than they would during normal waking hours.
Insomnia and short sleep rations have a huge effect on your work, home life and health. Pills are easy to take, but are imperfect solutions when used often.
Sleep hygiene can help without resorting to chemical warfare. Start by going to bed at the same time every night – that is the single most important thing. Do not watch exciting videos or forcefully debate politics before bed. No electronics in bed. Make it really dark and a little bit cool. It’s also a great time to try that meditation you have been meaning to start.
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.