- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 26, 2000

WACO, Texas

We've heard the mantra of modern American life over and over: We're working more so we can spend more so we can collect more and play more.

It's no surprise, then, that the time between the last computer log-off at night and the first cell phone ring of the morning has been decreasing over the years.

Americans don't sleep enough. That's according to the National Sleep Foundation, which reports that only 35 percent of adults sleep the recommended eight hours or more per night during the average workweek.

Most sleep six hours and 58 minutes per night, the foundation reports. Sometimes the loss of a few zzz's is inevitable, like during the daylight-saving time change. But more often, it's not.

"It is an interesting sociological phenomenon, where, at a time of timesaving devices and so many material things that are supposed to make your lives easier, we still lead lives where there's not enough time for sleep," said Dr. Joe Cunningham, an internist and senior vice president for medical affairs at Providence Medical Center.

In fact, the Wall Street Journal reported last year that a good night's sleep is a much sought-after commodity, "the ultimate perk for the truly successful."

Reversing the previous trends of "busier is better" and "sleep is for slackers," top executives now are envied if they can catch eight hours of shut-eye. And corporate America may not yet break for a midafternoon siesta, but some chief executive officers even admit to taking power naps.

But if America is to be productive, healthy, even safe, a good night's sleep must become more than a luxury, said Duane Slegel, clinical director of the Dallas-based Sleep Disorders Center of Texas.

"Sleep is really a very important thing, and there's reason why we spend one-third of our life asleep," Mr. Slegel said. "Trying to trim more and more time off that just interferes with normal operations of the body."

Sleep deprivation increases irritability, decreases concentration and weakens the immune system, he said.

Melissa Banks, a junior marketing major and president of Delta Delta Delta sorority at Baylor University, knows that all too well.

She said not getting enough sleep at night affects how she interacts with people and deals with situations the next day.

"My roommates can tell when I don't get enough sleep," she said.

Sleep deprivation of any form also greatly increases the likelihood of motor vehicle accidents. A study last year by the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety and the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center found that sleeping less than six hours per night, being awake for 20 hours or longer, working more than one job and/or working night shifts greatly increased the likelihood of a drowsy-driving accident.

So if sleep is such a valuable asset, why can't we get enough of it?

A small percentage of the population suffers from sleep disorders or works graveyard shifts. For others, it's a matter of not practicing good "sleep hygiene," Mr. Slegel said.

Eating or drinking caffeine after noon can keep some people up at night, as can eating or exercising too close to bedtime, he said.

And if you think Jay Leno or David Letterman make good bedfellows, think again. Television before bed often stimulates the mind and the body, and the lights and sounds keep people awake, Mr. Slegel said.

Reducing the amount of stress and decreasing the hours of work during the day also will make for a more restful night, he said.

"There is a direct relationship between how many hours we work and how many we sleep," he said. "We're working more hours now than we did in the '70s, and if that's happening, we're sleeping less."

Work and stress also affect the quality of sleep that people get at night. Sleep happens in stages, the deepest occurring while you dream. People who awaken easily during their dreams probably don't feel as rested, no matter how many hours they sleep, Mr. Slegel said.

But getting a few hours of quality sleep often doesn't make up for not getting enough sleep, he said.

"You can have the best quality in the world, but if you only get four hours, you're not getting enough," he said.

Physicians, nurses and other workers who switch shifts often run into the quality vs. quantity problem, Dr. Cunningham said. In fact, sleep has been a source of controversy in the medical field recently, he said. People want good health care providers available, but they want them well-rested, he said.

Not everyone needs eight hours of sleep, said Dr. Rodney Richie, a lung and critical-care specialist who works with sleep-disorder patients at Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center. But people's priority when it comes to sleep should be to get the amount they need at night to be productive and alert during the day.

"That absolute number is really quite variable. Most people have a pretty good idea of what it takes for them to be effective," he said. "If you need six hours and you're only getting five, you're not going to be effective."

If, after making some lifestyle changes, you still have trouble falling asleep, you should see a physician, he said.

The most important change people can make to get enough sleep at night is to be more efficient during the day, Mr. Slegel said. One way to do this is to get more work done during normal working hours so you don't need to arrive early or stay late at your job, he said.

"Either we need to become more efficient when we're awake and leave sleep alone or not work so hard," he said. "Food, water and sleep are basic human needs. We can't do without sleep."

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