Shift work is a reality of our modern economy. Services don’t stop running when the sun goes down. Without night workers—nurses and doctors, toll booth workers, security guards, policemen and women, truck drivers, pilots, and more—our world would grind to a halt. One of my closest friends works nights at a home for children. Most of his time is spent reading, but when the kids wake up or there’s an emergency, he is the first person on the scene. Without him, those kids wouldn’t be safe. But he pays a high price. Like many late shift workers, he suffers from terrible sleep-wake disruption, and is always either strung out or exhausted. After years of this strange schedule, he suffers from a host of physical problems. He has high blood pressure, struggles with his weight, and was just diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. He also has a lot of trouble with his relationship.
When I was a kid, I read a book about African explorers. I was living in Africa at the time, so the story was especially alluring. Africa: home to heartbreakingly beautiful sunsets, the most delicious orange Fanta I’ve ever had, one of the best zip lines in the world, and the greatest number of diseases of any country on earth. The book was about these two men journeying alone into the jungles of what was, at the time, the nation of Zaire (today it is the Democratic People’s Republic of Congo). They had a compass, sleeping bags, enough fresh water for a week, and their wits. Of course, like many adventure stories, the two men didn’t have a peaceful time frolicking amongst the epiphytes. No, they met angry local people, had a run in with a cheetah, ran out of water, and had to build a shelter out of monkey bones. Then, one of them got bitten by a tsetse fly and fell into a strange dreamlike trance. The story was fiction but, as I would soon learn from my dad (a medical student at the time), sleeping sickness is very real, and very frightening. I spent the rest of our year in Kenya scouring my surroundings for tsetse flies so that I might escape the fantasy explorer’s dreaded fate.
I’ve written a lot about sleep apnea. It’s one of the most common sleep disorders, and one of the most dangerous. Just a quick recap: sleep apnea is a potentially fatal condition that causes pauses in breathing during sleep, sometimes hundreds of times throughout the night. These periods of oxygen deprivation can raise a person’s risk for high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, and obesity. The precipitous and repeated drops in blood oxygen are what damage the body’s delicate tissues. Sleep apnea also results in a diminished quality of sleep. Poor sleep is related to a whole host of conditions, from anxiety and depression, to poor intellectual performance, to collapsing relationships. One of the things that’s so upsetting about sleep apnea is that it can be successfully treated, eliminating all of these frightening side effects. And yet, few sufferers even know they are suffering. If you live alone or your partner is a heavy sleeper, you may have sleep apnea and be entirely unaware. Even more frightening: new research shows that women are at particularly high risk.
Kids these days! I never thought I’d say those words, but here I am worried about how much time kids spend on the computer and watching television. Screens have infiltrated our homes and they’re not going anywhere soon. They’ve become a ubiquitous part of our work lives, social lives, and home lives. And kids are not immune. An increasing number of children have televisions, computers, cell phones, and tablets in their bedrooms. I’ve written before about how light from phones, computers, and televisions can affect sleep. The blue light from theses devices simulates daylight, confusing the brain into thinking its time to wake up. This is bad news if it’s time to go to bed. New research shows this type of light has an even more deleterious effect on children.
My husband snores. It isn’t a cute little snuffle here and there or an occasional bad night. He snores like a buzz saw and it’s constant. It starts about five minutes after he falls asleep and, since he always falls asleep before I do, I’m left to lay there awake silently hating him. I stuff earplugs in my ears and crank up the white noise on my headphones but nothing works. I can still hear the roaring snores through noise cancellers and decibel deadeners, and it keeps me awake all night long. So, as a consequence, my husband and I sleep in separate rooms. In our case, it’s been fine. We’re still intimate and we still spend a lot of time together. It’s sad to say goodnight to him and know I won’t get to snuggle up. It’s lonely always sleeping by myself. But the snoring is just too intense for anything else to work.
I live in New York and right now, the days are abysmally short. It starts getting dark around 4 PM, and that’s about when I start feeling blue. It’s hard to stay upbeat when the weather is so cold and so much of your life is spent under artificial lights. I can only imagine what it must be like in Alaska! Seasonal Affective Disorder runs rampant through the population during the northeast’s winter. In some people, it’s a mild feeling of dysphoria, just feeling down in the dumps. This is called sub-clinical SAD. In others, it’s a full-blown depression—the kind where you can’t get out of bed and can’t find pleasure in normal everyday activities. Severe SAD can be debilitating. Of course, like with most emotional disorders, sleep plays an important role—perhaps more than most in this case, since daylight is so closely linked to circadian rhythms. There’s a spring/summer version of SAD too, characterized by anxiety and restlessness, but we’ll be focusing on the winter variety here.
Romantic relationships are wonderful—without my husband, I’d be adrift, lonely, and decidedly unhappy—but that doesn’t mean marriage isn’t hard. I’m very proud of my relationship but that pride as much the result of hard work, compromising, and talking things out, as it is a result of the innate chemistry between the two of us. After ten years, I think the compromising and talking is even more important. And I’ve noticed, without fail, when one of us is sleep deprived, compromising and talking gets a whole lot harder. As much as we love each other, as committed as we are, we’ve had some truly difficult times. Almost all of them have involved a lack of sleep. As it happens, a new study has shows that relationship quality is directly affected by quality of sleep, and vice versa.
Insomnia is one of the most common ailments in adults. A full ten percent of the population suffers from it. Despite all of the sleeping pills on the market, that number isn’t going down. We live in an anxiety-driven, caffeine-fueled culture, and that’s just the beginning. Considering the economic situation in the United States over the past few years, people have a lot to worry about, and worrying and sleep don’t mix. For many of us, bedtime is the only time of day we really stop and think. It’s the first quiet moment we’ve had since we woke up, and our brains take full advantage. But at what price? The science is definitive: poor sleep means poor health and when you’re tired you aren’t at your best. Your job performance suffers, your relationships suffer, and your health slowly deteriorates. What’s really going on here?
People who sleep soundly often take the ubiquitous activity for granted. They are unfamiliar with the endless wakeful nights of the tormented insomniac. But most people have experienced insomnia at least once in their lives—a terrible night when no amount of tiredness can shut down an active brain. I’ve had many of these nights in my life. They often happen in times of stress, when my troubles occupy my thoughts. It took a few years of regular insomnia before I started really researching possible causes, from my diet to my brand of foam mattress. I was surprised to find some clear criminals among the commonly-used substances in my daily life. I didn’t realize that my lifestyle choices were sabotaging my sleep! They may be sabotaging yours too. Here are some common culprits.