The Great American "Sleep Debt." (Insomnia)

USA TODAY, October 1993 | Go to article overview

The Great American "Sleep Debt." (Insomnia)


Forty million Americans suffer chronic sleep disorders, and an additional 20-30,000,000 experience intermittent problems due to lifestyle factors. According to the National Commission on Sleep Disorders Research, total average nightly sleep lime has declined 20% in this century because of Americans' 24-hour society, the globalization of the economy, and factors such as the stress of recession and unemployment, longer work hours, and the aging of the population. Consequences of this "sleep debt" include reduced productivity and quality of life and greater likelihood of accidents. The nation pays a direct toll of $16,000,000,000 a year, not including the cost of catastrophic disasters in which sleep deprivation played a role, such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Results of two recent Gallup surveys reveal that 95% of insomnia sufferers go undiagnosed. Confusion about available treatments is widespread. Many forgo any medical attention, while 40% self-medicate, without benefit of physician advice, by using over-the-counter remedies, alcohol, or both. Alcohol may help people feel relaxed enough to fall asleep, but disrupts and fragments sleep after it is metabolized, Over-the-counter cold and pain remedies contain antihistamines that cause drowsiness. While they may induce sleep, they often leave the individual feeling groggy the next morning. These strategies, in essence, defeat the purpose in adopting them--i.e., getting to sleep in order to wake up alert and refreshed the next day.

Due to myths and misinformation, many people assume insomnia means chronic sleep problems. In fact, it refers to trouble sleeping, regardless of frequency. An occasional sleepless night is insomnia; so is sleep loss for a short period of time, due to the stress of temporary changes in situation such as a new job or family illness. People whose difficulties occur only occasionally tend to believe the situation doesn't warrant seeking advice from a physician. Individuals who experience occasional insomnia report a laundry list of daytime functioning problems compared to normal sleepers. …

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