Are You Susceptible to Sleep Deprivation?

UPDATED: April 29, 2011
PUBLISHED: April 29, 2011

Cynthia Alfaro’s yawning was drawing negative attention at work. “People would say, ‘Oh, I’m boring you.’ And I’d say, ‘My gosh, I’m so sorry. You’re not,’ ” she says. “There were meetings where I was literally fighting to stay up, which was embarrassing because that is not who I am. I’m really passionate.”

At 29 and responsible for some 300 employees as a human resources manager in New Jersey, Alfaro drank coffee to cover up her persistent fatigue. It was only when she tried to give up caffeine and talked with a sleep expert at one of her company’s health fairs that she realized there might be a problem.

Alfaro is not alone. People are chronically sleep deprived, says Donna Arand, clinical director of the Kettering Sleep Disorders Center, Dayton, Ohio. While some suffer sleep disorders, others simply aren’t getting enough sleep “because there isn’t enough time,” Arand says. “They’re going to bed late and getting up early in order to accomplish more. What they don’t realize is that by limiting their sleep, they’re probably being less productive and making more mistakes in their performance— actually, the trade-off is not a good one.”

Hard-driving executives might be particularly prone to sleep problems, says Dr. Ron Kramer, a neurologist and medical director of the Colorado Sleep Disorders Center in Englewood.

“When they come in to see me, I say, ‘this is the flip side of success,’ ” says Kramer, spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “I think a hard-driving type-A person is going to have a hard time shutting it off at night.”

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends most adults get seven to eight hours of sleep a night for optimum productivity and health. Sleeping less is associated with higher incidences of health problems, including diabetes, stroke, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and a shorter life span, research has shown.

“The epidemics we’re seeing, such as obesity and diabetes, are also paralleling this decrease in sleep that is prevalent in the population,” Arand says. One study showed that healthy young men experienced impaired glucose tolerance, a precursor of diabetes, after getting just a couple of hours less sleep a night over a period of five days, she says. At least one study suggested that decreased sleep time could lead, years later, to greater weight gain, she says.

Studies indicate a lack of sleep can be dangerous, causing significant mental impairment. After 18 hours of consecutive wakefulness, brain function starts to deteriorate to a degree that’s comparable to a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent—the legal intoxication limit in some states, says Carol Ash, medical director of the Sleep for Life centers in New Jersey. This effect is cumulative. “Going several days of getting only four or five hours of sleep will have the same impact [as 18 hours of wakefulness], and 24 hours of consecutive wakefulness is equivalent to a blood alcohol concentration of 0.1 percent,” Ash says.

In general, people who don’t get enough sleep—whether for one night or chronically—tend to be less sharp, have decreased memory and are moodier and more irritable than well-rested people.

Maria Hetem, owner of a dog grooming salon and doggie day care in New Jersey, says long days are a given with her choice of careers. Most weekdays, she arrives at her Sudzy Pup Salon at 7 a.m. and doesn’t close until 6 or 7 p.m.; then, it’s a dinner break before putting in another three or so hours of paperwork.

Before being diagnosed and treated for sleep apnea, Hetem had trouble getting through the day awake. “If I sat down, I could fall right asleep,” she says. “I couldn’t think straight and would often be at a loss for words.”

Sleep apnea caused Hetem to stop breathing for brief periods throughout the night. But she felt more rested and energetic after going to bed wearing a device called continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), which provides air pressure through a face mask to help keep breathing passages open during sleep.

Sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome, can awaken people during the night without their knowing it. They think they’re sleeping through the night, and don’t understand why they’re tired. But, the quality of sleep and the amount of sleep are important for physical health and alertness. “You should be able to sleep uninterrupted, so your brain can get into the deep stages of sleep, which could take 20 minutes to 30 minutes of solid sleep,” Arand says.

You can, to a degree, make up for lost sleep . Taking a short nap during the day— even if it’s only 15 minutes—might help re-energize someone falling asleep at her desk. But, Arand warns, sleep deprivation accumulates over time, so while naps or sleeping in on the weekends might help, the added sleep won’t make up—hour for hour—for what you’ve lost at night.

If you’re tired during the day and you’ve done everything you can to help yourself, then you have to consider that you might be one of the 50 million to 70 million Americans with a sleep disorder, Ash says. “There are 80-plus sleep disorders,” she says.

Today’s effective sleep treatments range from educating people about good sleep habits to cognitive behavioral therapy and de-stressing to physician-prescribed medications and even nightly use of devices that help to open airway passages.

A sleep study and medical history revealed that Alfaro might have physical issues contributing to disturbed sleep—specifically, a sinus problem and an old back injury. Now she takes medication for her sinuses and goes regularly to her chiropractor to address any back issues. She also practices good sleep habits to keep her mind from racing at night. Alfaro’s finally getting that good night’s rest she once found elusive.