Did you know that at this very moment there exists a single, enormously effective weight loss aid, chronic disease fighter, mental health booster and student achievement enhancer — and it’s available to everyone and free for the taking?
All you have to do to reap these benefits is get eight hours of uninterrupted shut-eye.
You just groaned, didn’t you? We humans are the only species that willfully deny ourselves sleep and — cellphones, remotes and tablets in hand and in bed — Americans are experts at it. Forty percent of the nation’s adults and a whopping 70 percent of its high-school students are chronically sleep-deprived according to National Institutes of Health (NIH) guidelines.
And it’s not just making us exhausted and irritable. It’s killing us.
“We are tapping into a moment where sleep is getting a level of attention and recognition that people like Dr. Matt Walker [director of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley] have long been yearning for in terms of sitting on this growing body of evidence that there are serious consequences to the sleep-loss epidemic — but they’ve been screaming into the wind,” says John Hoffman, Emmy-winning producer of Children in War, The Alzheimer’s Project and The Weight of the Nation, whose The Public Good Projects teamed up with National Geographic Channel, the NIH and leading sleep researchers to produce the eye-opening NGC documentary Sleepless in America. “I hope that we can be an amplifier for them, a megaphone to make people understand that this is far more serious than they’re aware.”
“The elastic band of sleep deprivation can stretch only so far before it snaps,” Dr. Walker explains, “and I think that’s exactly what this documentary is going to demonstrate. We’re starting to see this weathering of that elastic band of sleep deprivation in numerous medical conditions: anxiety, depression, stroke, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer. My hope is that the documentary starts to break down some of that stigma in industrialized nations that getting sufficient sleep is equivalent to laziness.”
“The answer isn’t hard,” Hoffman concluded. “You have to get more sleep. You just have to do it.”
A Few Eye-opening Facts About Shuteye
Pills Aren’t The Answer
Twenty percent of the U.S. population regularly takes some form of prescription sleep medication. But an increasing number of studies have shown that a few simple behavioral changes are more effective than popping a pill. “One of the most important parts of the documentary is to reveal that we now have good, non-drug-related methods for improving sleep specifically called CBTI, or cognitive behavioral therapy, for insomnia,” says Dr. Walker. “When you stop sleep medications, most people tend to go back to bad sleep again; when you stop sessions with a CBTI therapist and you continue to practice those methods, you continue to obtain good sleep for the long term.”
Sleeper, Heal Thyself
“Sleep is critically essential for most all body functions and one of those is your immune health,” says Dr. Walker. “We know that there are a number of immune system components that help fight malignancy — for example, one called natural killer cells. These will actually latch onto tumors and release a protein into them that destroys the tumors. After one night of sleep deprivation, there is about a 70 percent reduction in your natural killer cell activity.”
Researchers are now discovering that sleep disorders aren’t just a byproduct of mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. “That’s going to be one of the next revelations of the sleep research field,” says Walker. “Based on modern-day research, we’re starting to understand that sleep abnormalities make a significant contribution to the development of those psychiatric conditions.”
The Kids Aren’t Alright
With most American high schools starting before 8am and students taking on more work, volunteer and athletic opportunities to secure their future, sleep has become an elective for a segment of the population that needs it the most. “There are school systems that have delayed their start time and the positives that come out of that are just fantastic,” Hoffman says. “SAT scores going up. School sports teams performing better. Fewer kids in car accidents. But if we’re going to pay more attention to traffic patterns and school bus schedules, then we’re going to have all these kids who are suffering. What are our priorities?”
Add Sleep, Subtract Pounds
University of Pennsylvania research has shown that skipping sleep increases cravings for bad carbs and fatty foods by 33 percent, adding an extra 500 frequently empty calories into the diets of poor sleepers.
Devise A Better Plan
One thing everyone can do to get a better night’s sleep? Leave the electronics out of the bedroom. Sixty percent of us bring our cellphones and other electronic devices along when we retire for the night. “The problem is that we can’t resist the stimulation — it’s too rewarding,” says Hoffman. “It’s exceeding anything that we were designed to experience, so it’s keeping us up beyond what we’re designed for.”
Shifting Our View Of Shift Work
Some 15 million people work the night shift and 40 percent of them get less than six hours of sleep. Dr. Walker notes that the link between sleep loss and cancer is so strong now that the World Health Organization has classified shift work as a probable carcinogen.
Sleepless in America premieres Nov. 30 at 8/7 CT on National Geographic Channel.
Image/video: National Geographic Channel