More than 40 percent of U.S. adults log six or fewer hours of shut-eye each night, according to a recent Gallup poll.
“There's a very rare human being [who] physiologically needs only six hours of sleep,” said Dr. Ronald Green, a sleep specialist at Everett Clinic.
If you're not part of this “sleepless elite,” missing out on Z's can lead to irritability, anxiety and even short-term memory loss. Over time, Green said, a sleep-deprived body starts to look, in a sense, “infected.”
It leads to increased risk of illness, of diabetes, of gaining weight, of depression,” he said. “If you don't sleep well, your brain just doesn't work right.”
Do you lie awake in bed for hours? Wake up for no reason in the dead of night? Doze off at your desk? It might be time to seek out a sleep doc.
The first visit, an evaluation, won't require you to climb into bed for a sleep study. And if a study is eventually ordered, you might even be able to do it at home by renting the technology.
There are more than 80 sleep disorders. The two main categories are insomnia (sleeplessness) and hypersomnia (sleepiness).
Bouts of insomnia are fairly common, because we all have nights when we struggle to fall asleep. “When it gets to be a problem is when it happens night after night, for months at a time,” Green said.
Some people have the opposite problem: They nod off way too easily. Narcolespy, an extreme form of hypersomnia, can put you to sleep while driving to work or relaxing at lunch.
You might have a lesser form of hypersomnia if you're tired during the day even when you get enough sleep at night.
But what's “enough” when it comes to sleep?
The shorthand answer is eight hours, which means some people can get away with seven and some people need nine, and so on. Since we all have a different circadian rhythm (our biological clock), the need for sleep varies by person. But Green said that need is a fixed number — regardless of what kind of job you have, what brand of mattress you sleep on or how often you're guilt-tripped for not being a morning person.
Try thinking about sleep like a bank account. The hours you're withdrawing night after night build up over time. If you sleep a total of 30 hours during the work week, but you actually needed 35, you have negative five hours in your account. To properly recover, you have to oversleep Saturday and Sunday.
This concept, called sleep debt, explains why some of us seem to savor sleeping in on the weekends. Green approves. If possible, “you should sleep till you wake up and not worry about it. You're paying some sleep debt back.” But remember, these need to be extra hours. You won't pay off any debt by staying up all night and waking up at noon.
What about the things we do in our sleep?
Whether they know it or not, about 10 percent of people suffer from sleep apnea, a disorder that interrupts breathing during sleep. Trademarks of sleep apnea are loud snoring, choking or gasping. Oftentimes it's the bed partner who turns you in to the sleep police.
Waking up to go to the restroom could mean you have an enlarged prostrate or simply that you're aging. But if it's a new symptom, it could signal sleep apnea.
Talking in your sleep usually isn't dangerous (unless you're spilling secrets). Same goes for sleepwalking, which most kids age out of as they enter adulthood.
If you've ever become conscious while sleeping — but been unable to move because your body is frozen in a deep slumber — you might suffer from sleep paralysis.
The opposite problem: When your body turns on and you literally begin to act out your dreams, which can be incredibly dangerous.
Treatment for this suite of sleep ailments includes lifestyle changes, oral appliances, medication and, in some cases, surgery.
Don't eat before bed, some websites advise. Or read, or watch TV, or use your phone. But Green's not sold on any hard-and-fast rules. At the end of the day, he suggests doing what's comfortable.
“If you can turn the light off and fall asleep relatively quickly, I don't think it matters what you do before you go to bed,” he said. So pick a pillow, a position and a nighttime routine that works for you. Oh, and sleep in. If you snooze, you win.
The power nap
The one sleepiness countermeasure that actually works? Napping.
“It sounds stupid to say, but the only way to counteract sleepiness is to sleep,” Green said.
Your need for sleep accumulates in a linear pattern during the day, but napping reduces your sleepiness exponentially. In other words, if you're really tired around lunch, a 30-minute “power nap” can recharge your batteries for a few more hours (this energy piles up like a snowball, so try not to crash for more than half an hour).