Sleep is a basic need for all humans, yet experts say insufficient sleep is a national epidemic.
“We have a 24/7 society where the lights and computers and TV are on all the time,” said Dr. Greg McKinnis, medical director for Oklahoma Sleep Institute. “It’s excessive wakefulness that’s the problem in America.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that an estimated 50 million to 70 million U.S. adults have sleep or wakefulness disorder.
This lack of sleep has some Americans “sleeping around,” according to a 2012 study from The Better Sleep Council. The study shows that nearly half of Americans fall asleep somewhere other than their beds once a week or more. Among these non-mattress locations are work, church, in vehicles and even on the toilet.
Adults generally need from seven to nine hours of sleep every night to repair the damage done during the day, according to Family Sleep Institute.
“We’re grossly below that number in America,” McKinnis said, though sleep requirements do vary from person to person. Some people may function well on only five hours, while another person may need as many as 10 hours of sleep to feel fully rested. A good time to figure out how much sleep you need is while on vacation. The amount of sleep you take on the fourth or fifth day of a restful vacation is probably the amount you need on a daily basis, McKinnis said.
Test your sleep smarts as we take on several popular sleep myths.
•Myth: It’s healthy and normal to crave sleep more than I crave sex.
That’s a sign that you’re either sleep insufficient or deprived. The Better Sleep Council’s 2012 survey found that 60 percent of Americans crave sleep more than sex. Most of these Americans are women and many admitted to falling asleep during sex.
•Myth: Falling asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow is as sign of healthy sleep.
Normally, it takes between 10 and 20 minutes to fall asleep, experts say. Falling asleep right away is likely a sign that your body needs more sleep than you’ve been giving it.
“How awake and alert are you during the day?” McKinnis said. “That’s the question — not when you go to bed at night.”
•Myth: Sleeping like a log, never waking or moving during the nigh means I’m a great sleeper.
“Brief awakenings are fairly common,” McKinnis said. Between the four or five sleep cycles that make up a good night’s sleep, we naturally either wake or come close to waking.
It’s not being able to go back to sleep immediately that can be a problem.
Many people experience the feeling of falling down stairs just as they’re dozing off. The phenomena is called hypnic jerks.
“There is a little bit of an unsteady transition period between wakefulness and sleep,” McKinnis explained. He said he’s experienced hypnic jerks since he was a kid. “That is a fairly normal phenomenon and it’s described over and over again by patients.”
•Myth: I know I have a sleep debt, but I pay it back during the weekends by sleeping in and taking long naps.
If your body needs eight hours of sleep each night and you only get six hours during the workweek, you are 10 hours in sleep debt by the weekend.
“You can repay that debt a little bit on the weekend but you can’t repay it fully,” McKinnis said. Research shows, he said, that a person with insufficient sleep for two weeks straight performs psychomotor tasks no better than a person who has been completely sleep deprived for 48 hours.
•Myth: Over-the-counter sleep aids are safe, effective and can be used for long periods of time.
Most of these sleep aids contain an antihistamine, usually diphenhydramine, the active ingredient in Benadryl. They can knock you out, but regular use of these products can rob you of the repairing, restorative sleep you really need, the Family Sleep Institute states.
“In moderation, once or twice a week isn’t going to cause major issues for the average person,” McKinnis said, assuming that person has no medical issues such as high blood pressure, smoking or drinking.
It’s important to remember that antihistamines can leave you feeling groggy the day after you take one for sleep. They increase the risk for falls in the elderly and can lead to urinary retention and stress incontinence according to Family Sleep Institute. They can also become habit forming.
Melatonin, a supplement not regulated by the FDA, is fairly nontoxic but its potency can be unpredictable, McKinnis said, due to the lack of regulations.
•Myth: Babies need the most sleep; senior citizens need the least. It’s true that babies need the most sleep and will often sleep 16 hours a day. Experts estimate that preschoolers (ages 3 to 5) need 11 to 13 hours of sleep, while school-age children up to age 12 need approximately 10 to 11 hours. Teens ages 10 to 17 need 8.5 to 9 hours, and adults need 7 to 9 hours, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
Many people think that seniors need less sleep than anyone, but that myth is probably perpetuated by the fact that many seniors have trouble achieving healthy amounts of sleep.
“As you get into late adulthood, elderly age, the amount of sleep you need stays very similar to what it was when you were in middle age, but achieving that sleep becomes much more difficult,” McKinnis said. Issues that can keep seniors from getting good sleep include vision issues, such as cataracts, that cause problems regulating sleep cycles by affecting the amount of light that triggers sleep and wake cycles.
Seniors often take a variety of medications that can cause lighter, more fragmented sleep.
If you experience sleep difficulties, there are some natural ways you can help yourself sleep better. Limit your intake of caffeine after 3 or 4 p.m., even if you think you’ve developed a tolerance to it.
Make sure your bedroom is cool and dark and that your bedtime routine is the same every night.
Getting plenty of exercise during the day tops the list of ways to help ensure a good night’s sleep.