Tired? Studies show you're not alone

Sleeping less may have more consequences than you think

By Jennifer Garrett

It is dark outside when Terry Bell arrives at work. Even in the summer when days are their longest, the Wisconsin Public Radio Morning Edition host is on air before sunrise.

Out of bed by 4 a.m. and at his desk by 4:30, Bell isn't alone. Bell's voice is broadcast across the state before the crack of dawn because others are awake, too. After all, hospitals never close. Police departments operate all night. Truck drivers, factory workers, airline pilots—they're all up when the sun is down. It's simply a fact of life, especially in America, where even gas stations and grocery stores are open 24/7. There is little that cannot be done or bought at any hour of the day.

All this adds up to a country on overdrive, and research backs it up.

The National Sleep Foundation's Sleep in America polls show that we are getting less and less sleep all the time. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studies also have identified this gradual erosion of shut-eye. While pre-industrialization Americans slept closer to nine hours per night, more than forty percent of us today clock fewer than eight hours. When asked about it in surveys, many of us report that we are not well rested. Centers for Disease Control data suggest that between twenty-two and twenty-eight percent of Wisconsinites admit to getting insufficient sleep for fourteen or more days per month. 

For many, seven hours of sleep per night sounds like a dream come true. New parents couldn't put a price tag on that much. Medical residents can't remember what it even feels like. And a lot of the rest of us feel pulled in so many directions that we're tired, too, because sleep is the only thing on our unrelenting to-do list that seems to give.

There's also peer pressure to blame. Inadequate rest becomes the norm, and anyone who gets more seems lazy and self-indulgent. The most industrious of us soldier on bleary eyed in the name of families, careers and communities. It's presented as responsibility, discipline and devotion. At times it hints at sacrifice or even superiority. There's the subtle subtext we read in it: We could have it all, too, if we didn't waste so much time sleeping.

But sleep is far from idle or nonproductive, says Ruth Benca, a psychiatrist by training and director of Wisconsin Sleep, a translational research partnership between the University of Wisconsin Medical Foundation and Meriter Hospital. Part clinic and part lab, Wisconsin Sleep treats patients with sleep disorders and conducts research on all facets of sleep. "We don't actually understand the function of sleep," she says, "but the brain is not simply shut off."

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