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Sleep Deprivation: The Surprising Causes and Solutions

Sleep deprivation is rampant in offices across America, according to three recent studies, and now new research points to the likely culprit: electronics usage.

More than one out of three adults get less than 7 hours of sleep a night, and 38% report unintentionally falling asleep during the day at least once in the past month, according to the Centers for Disease Control's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The annual Sleep in America poll by the National Sleep Foundation, released today, suggests the cause is the widespread use of electronics at night.

  • About 95% of people use some type of electronics in the hour before bed, whether it's watching TV, surfing the internet, playing video games or texting.
  • The youngest generation of adults, Gen Y'ers (19 to 29 year olds), are the biggest users of interactive electronics, like cell phones and the internet. They are more than eight times as likely as baby boomers (46 to 64 year olds) to text in the hour before bedtime--52% of them texted compared to 5% of boomers.
  • About 19% of respondents sent or received work related emails before bed.

What do electronics have to do with sleep deprivation--and job performance? The National Sleep Foundation surveyed 1508 people and found:

  • People who text before bed were less likely to get a good night's sleep, more likely to wake up tired, to be characterized as sleepy, and more likely to drive while feeling drowsy.
  • Three quarters of those over 30 who reported not getting enough sleep said their sleepiness affected their work.

Gen Y'ers can also blame Facebook. About 63% of 20 somethings use a social networking site before bed, compared to 34% of gen X'ers (30 to 45 year olds) and only 18% of boomers. They're also twice as likely to play video games in that hour, and much more likely to Skype, watch videos on the computer or talk on their cell phone. Gen X'ers fall somewhere in between but their pre-bedtime behaviors are more similar to boomers than their younger colleagues.

It's not just the postgrads who are losing sleep. A whopping 64% of all those who responded to the National Sleep Foundation survey said they woke up during the night and 61% said they woke up the next morning feeling un-refreshed at least a few days a week.

"Electronics are making it very enticing to stay up later," says Charles A. Czeisler, M.D., a co-author of the survey and the director of division of sleep medicine at Harvard's Brigham & Women's Hospital in Boston. "You have 500 cable channels, 24/7 entertainment and technologies, video gaming available around the clock. How bad something is for you depends on the extent to which it is captivating you and tempting you not to sleep."

Passive technologies, like watching TV and listening to music may be more calming than interactive electronics like video games, cell phones and the internet because they tend to be less engaging. "The hypothesis is that the latter devices are more alerting and disrupt the sleep-onset process," says Michael Gradisar, Ph.D, a co-author of the study. But TV is more pervasive in bedrooms across the country, and can keep people up much longer than they normally would if they were just flipping through a magazine before bedtime.

Plus, artificial light--whether from a light bulb or your computer screen--suppresses the release of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin, making it take longer to fall asleep.

Here are tips from sleep experts on how to have a better night's sleep so you can function better at work (and to avoid the myriad health problems that are associated with chronically being sleep deprived).

  1. Get off the grid. Set a "bedtime alarm" 45 to 60 minutes before your bedtime as a reminder to turn off all electronics and begin to wind down.
  2. If you can't bring yourself to do step 1, then try to watch TV, listen to music or use an E-reader rather than using your computer or cell phone. But set a specific time that you will turn those off as well.
  3. Keep your cell phone out of the bedroom. About 10 % of us are awakened from our sleep by the cell phone at least a few times a week (more often for younger people).
  4. Put all work related paraphernalia away in the hour before bed, so you're not thinking about work when trying to nod off.
  5. Start dimming your lights a couple of hours before bed. Avoid bright lights, and keep a dimmer in the bathroom, so you're not being exposed to bright lights while you're getting washed before bed.
  6. Don't drink caffeinated beverages for six to nine hours before you go to sleep.
Do you think you're sleep deprived, and what could help you get more sleep?
Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for the New York Times, national magazines and websites including Health, Prevention, iVillage and the Huffington Post. Follow her on twitter.
Image courtesy of flickr user, B Rosen
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