‘Sleepless in America’ reveals eye-opening truth about lack of sleep


Can’t fall asleep? Not getting enough sleep? You’re not alone, and that sleep deprivation may be causing a lot more damage than you realize.

Waking up earlier, going to bed later and getting far less sleep than our bodies require not only makes us tired and unable to function, it makes us vulnerable to disease. Sleep deprivation is a serious public safety issue, too: Drowsy driving causes nearly 1,000 fatal car crashes each year. 

This epidemic of overtiredness only gets worse as we get older, according to Matthew Walker, director of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory at UC Berkeley, who appears in the new documentary “Sleepless in America.” The special premieres Nov. 30 on the National Geographic Channel.

“The prevalence of insomnia increases significantly with age. Estimates suggest that at least 40 percent of the adult population over the age of 60 suffers from insomnia,” Walker told the Journal. “The strength of the 24-hour biological rhythm within the brain that helps regulate our sleep/wake cycle degrades as we get older, leading to problems with sleep at night. And the brain regions that help generate sleep, especially deep sleep, are the same that deteriorate most dramatically as we get older.”

It doesn’t help that older adults tend to have more physical pain, which can cause them to wake up throughout the night. They also need to get up to go to the bathroom more frequently, after which they can have a harder time falling asleep, he added.

Walker pointed out that it is “a common misconception that older people need less sleep. Older adults need sleep just as much as adults at other stages in life but cannot initiate or maintain sleep as effectively.” 

Studies have established links between sleep deprivation and a host of serious conditions, including cancer, obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety and depression. Another concern is sleep apnea, infrequent or cessation of breathing during sleep. 

“Apnea fragments sleep, further decreasing the amount of deep sleep obtained,” Walker said, adding that certain other conditions can contribute to insomnia. “Chronic pain can fragment all types of sleep throughout the night. Depression can lead to abnormal sleep, including too much REM [rapid eye movement] sleep and a reduction in deep [non-REM] sleep.” 

And there’s more bad news: As “Sleepless in America” explains, cancer researcher Dr. David Gozal of the University of Chicago established that poor sleep may double the speed of cancer growth. 

The warnings are clear, but this wakeup call comes with solutions. Mark Rosekind, a fatigue expert with the National Transportation Safety Board, who has been involved in investigating accidents caused by drowsy driving and who appears in the TV special, offered some simple, practical advice. 

“Give yourself enough time to sleep,” he told the Journal. ”Have a regular bedtime and, especially, [a regular] wake time. Control your environment: temperature, noise, light. Cooler is better than warmer — 67 to 68 degrees is the perfect sleeping temperature for most people. Anything from earplugs to noise machines can be helpful. Have enough light that you can get around if you have to get up during the night, but not so much that it tricks your internal clock.

“Take the technology out of the bedroom. Not only can it be overstimulating, the light can literally change your sleep patterns as well. You can read, watch television or listen to music in bed. You just don’t want to do something that’s going to get you engaged and stimulated,” he said. So instead of watching something scary that will get your heart racing, stick to reading the tax code, he joked.

Rosekind recommends establishing regular habits and routines that train your body to prepare for sleep, and developing both physical and mental relaxation skills. “The No. 1 cause of insomnia is worrying about something. Yoga stretching, and relaxing and tensing muscles can help, and so can counting sheep, giving yourself something to focus on other than the worry in your head.”

It may help to make a written list of your worries and concerns and what you plan to do about them before you go to your bedroom, Rosekind said. “Then, when you’re in bed and something on the list comes up, you can say it’s on the list and get back to the relaxation skills.” 

His No. 1 piece of advice, however, can be the most difficult to follow, given the hectic lives so many of us lead: “Make sure to give yourself enough time for sleep, at least eight hours.”

If shut-eye still remains elusive, Walker suggests seeking out a sleep specialist “who can properly assess, diagnose and treat specific sleep disorders.” Snorers who keep their partners awake would also benefit from this help, he added. 

“Snoring is potentially indicative of sleep apnea, which is treatable, and the bed partner will also benefit markedly with treatments,” he said.

The message of “Sleepless in America” is clear, and it’s one that Walker echoes. 

“There doesn’t seem to be one major organ within the body, or process within the brain, that isn’t optimally enhanced by sleep — and detrimentally impaired when we don’t get enough. Sleep appears to be the third pillar of good health, together with diet and exercise,” he said. “The single most effective thing we can do each and every day to restore both brain and body health is sleep.”

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