It may seem like we just gained an hour of sleep setting our clocks back this fall yet already we’re about to spring forward and lose it once again. The annual spring ritual is a sign the weather is about to get warmer, but it also tends to leave many of us groggy for a couple of weeks.
“The problem is people are shortchanging themselves already before the time change,” says Dottie Love, a sleep technologist at the St. Mary’s Sleep Center. “Even though we are supposed to get seven to eight hours of sleep a night, in all reality most Americans are getting about six hours of sleep. So if you cut yourself down to five hours due to the time change, you will feel that. That’s why it makes such a big difference because you are already short-changed.”
The biggest trouble about sleep debt is it’s very hard to get out of.
“If you are constantly working at a sleep debt you won’t be able to sleep enough to catch it up,” says Love. “So if you are short-changing yourself all week you’re not going to be able to make it up on the weekend unless you sleep 20 hours and that’s not going to happen.”
So why is sleep important? Scientists aren’t exactly sure of all the benefits, but it’s thought that during the non-dream phase of sleep, that’s when our cellular and biologic restorative processes are taking place. And if you aren’t getting the non-rem sleep, or enough of it, you’re missing out on that restorative process.
“The dream sleep, or REM, you need because it’s thought that’s when your long term memories are stored away,” says Love. “People that are missing out on REM or dream sleep tend to see a deficit in concentration and eventually their short-term memory suffers.”
While all of us could use a bit more shut-eye, one group that could use even more focus in this area is the Baby Boomer generation.
“Generally, this is the age group where we see most of the sleep disorders,” says Love. “A lot of it is obstructive sleep apnea. As we age, the weight tends to come on. That alone can take something that may have been a mild problem and make it a more serious problem. You may have snored in your 20s and 30s and by the time you’re in the 50s, it’s turned into sleep apnea.”
Marlene Huebner is fortunate. She doesn’t suffer from too many sleepless nights. But even she’s seen a noticeable decline in the quality of her sleep, compared to when she was younger.
“Once I hit my 50s, I started to have more interruptions,” says Huebner, a 56 year-old who works third shift three nights a week. “You wake up for no reason, are awake anywhere from one to ten minutes – can’t figure out what’s going on – and then you go back to sleep. But there are a lot of people I know in their 50s who wake up and can’t get back to sleep for up to an hour.”
So why is this? It’s partly due to the aging process. As babies we need a lot of sleep. But as we get older, the amount of sleep we need begins to decrease. Young adults require about 8-9 hours, then it’s about 7-8 hours for most of our working lives and a little less when we hit retirement. The trouble is most of us get much less sleep than we need and there are other health problems to factor in.
So how do you know if you suffer from just sleep debt or a sleep disorder? Your best bet is to ask your spouse or friends (assuming you’re sharing sleeping quarters) if you were snoring or restless overnight. Another way is to pay attention to how your bed looks when you wake up.
“Generally, if your bed covers are askew in the morning, chances are you are flopping around a lot and could be restless,” says Love. “If your body is constantly aching, or maybe you’re not getting over illness as quickly as you once did, those are also signs you’re not getting the restorative sleep you need.”
Blood pressure is also an indicator. If your blood pressure always has been in the normal range but all of a sudden starts to creep up or is uncontrollable with medication, you could have a sleep disorder. Additionally, if you feel fatigued even after a good night’s sleep you might be waking up throughout the night without even knowing it.
For Marlene Huebner, who’s sleep and wake time is opposite from most people, it’s a real challenge to go to bed as the sun is rising. But she forces herself to keep the same bedtime because she knows how important her sleep is.
“It takes a conscious effort to do it,” she says. “But I do it because I need to get good quality sleep to function.”
So what can you do to make sure you’re getting a decent night’s sleep? First, Dottie Love recommends putting away all distractions, that means no Blackberries, laptops or other devices that will get your brain active before you hit the hay. Second, try to not watch television in your room as the bright light can wake you up. Finally, make sure the environment isn’t too hot or too cold. And if can’t fall asleep within 20 minutes, don’t stare at the clock and become frustrated. Instead, get out of bed and read a book. Return to your bed only when you’re sleepy.
If you or your spouse suspects a sleep disorder, talk with your family physician first. He or she may refer you to a sleep specialist who would further evaluate your problem and may prescribe medication or a machine called a CPAP to help you sleep better.
Fatigue isn’t Normal
- 100 million Americans (roughly one in three) fail to get enough sleep regularly
- There are at least 84 different types of sleep disorders
- Most people over age 65 normally wake up at least once a night to go to the bathroom
- More than half of people over age 65 experience disturbed sleep
- Some medications can disrupt sleep
- As many as 50% of those 65 or older suffer from limb twitches which can disrupt sleep
The Keys to More Z’s
- Have your spouse/friend alert you to your snoring or restless sleep
- Silence or turn off your cell phone when you go to bed
- Keep TV, computers and Blackberries out of the bedroom
- Make sure your room temperature isn’t too warm or cold
- Try to get at least 7 hours of sleep every night
- Avoid caffeine and vigorous exercise within six hours of bedtime
- If you can’t fall asleep in bed within 20 minutes, get up and read – returning to bed only when sleepy
- If sleep problems last more than a month, talk to your physician