Most nights, Thomas Copenhaver finds himself sleepless. So, he used a sleep-monitoring device to find out how bad it was: While he was in bed for six hours and 42 minutes one night, he woke up 14 times, and slept only two hours and 46 minutes.
“It’s kind of like the night before a vacation – you don’t sleep because you worry that you'll oversleep and miss your flight,” he said. “That’s just me in a nutshell every day.”
With as many as 70 million Americans reporting trouble sleeping, health officials have redoubled efforts to unlock the mysteries of this essential bodily function. Still, they’re only beginning to learn how sleep works and why we need it.
“We’re not even at the halfway point of our understanding of the complexities of sleep and health,” said physician Mark Hansen of the Mayo Clinic’s Center for Sleep Medicine in Rochester, Minn.
What we do know is that our 24/7 priorities have shifted away from getting a good night’s sleep.
“This business of sleep deprivation is not so much a disorder as a choice,” said Virend Somers, a Mayo Clinic cardiologist who has been studying the effects of sleep disorders on the heart for 25 years. “And one of the reasons it’s a choice is people don’t quite understand or realize the consequences of not getting enough sleep.”
Earlier this year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared sleeplessness “a public health epidemic,” citing a link to chronic diseases, such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease, depression and even “early death.”
Adults need seven to nine hours of sleep a night to function properly. Yet, one out of three American adults say they routinely get less than seven, according to the CDC. On average, people are getting two hours less sleep a night than we did 40 years ago.
Young people, in particular, might be setting themselves up for future problems because of their round-the-clock devotion to mobile devices and social media.
“We are only going to see the health consequences of those lifestyle choices 20 to 30 years down the road,” Somers said.
According to Hansen, scientists know that sleep plays a vital role in repairing our bodies, consolidating memory and other rejuvenating functions. Yet they still haven’t determined exactly how some of these re-energizing properties work.
A ground-breaking study published last fall in the Annals of Internal Medicine documented what happened when a group of healthy volunteers were allowed to sleep for just 4.5 hours a night. After several nights in a row, their fat cells aged and became less sensitive to insulin – a characteristic of diabetes, University of Chicago researchers found.
Troubled sleepers are increasingly seeking medical treatment, propelling the number of sleep centers to an all-time high. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine has accredited an estimated 2,500 sleep centers across the country.
Inside these laboratories, specialists treat a host of disorders, including insomnia, sleepwalking, narcolepsy and restless leg syndrome.
At Mayo’s sleep center, one of the nation’s largest, sleep studies are conducted on patients six nights a week in the 24-bed clinical lab.
Ted Mueller, of Rochester, spent a night under observation last year. A snorer who complained of always feeling tired, he was referred by his doctor, who suspected that he might have sleep apnea, a serious disorder that interrupts a person’s breathing while sleeping.
When Mueller checked into the sleep center, sensors were attached to his eyes, scalp, face, chest and legs. Electrodes monitored his breathing, movement and heart. Infrared cameras captured images of him while technicians monitored the room.
Halfway through the night, a technician woke Mueller to equip him with a CPAP machine, which blows air into the nose. The next day, Mueller’s sleep doctor reviewed the results.
“They found I had fairly significant sleep apnea,” he said. “They told me that out of the four stages of sleep, I was only sleeping in the first two phases.”
Now he sleeps with the CPAP machine most nights and says he feels “fantastic.”
While a high-tech sleep lab might provide the answer for some people, many turn to home remedies. In fact, Hansen and other doctors urge their patients to improve their “sleep hygiene,” nighttime rituals that foster good sleeping conditions.
Janine Hanson, who owns a communications consulting business, struggled off and on with sleep problems until she worked on her sleep hygiene.
Now, she goes to bed at 11 p.m. every night and avoids making plans that will interfere with her bedtime. She switched from coffee to tea, sleeps with eye shades and leaves her cellphone outside her bedroom. “Having those rituals makes me feel like I have some control,” she said.
Managing technology is essential to a good night’s sleep, but there are no clear guidelines. Some doctors recommend avoiding screen time before bedtime, but a recent Mayo study suggests that holding the devices at least 14 inches away from your eyes will diminish the effects on the body’s melatonin, a hormone that helps control the natural sleep cycle.
“I tell my patients if you find something that works, stick with it,” Hansen said.
Take Copenhaver, of Richfield, Minn. He’s gone to great lengths in his mission to fall asleep, including sleeping pills and heavy exercise. But when all else fails, he simply watches old TV shows.
“Anything that I’ve watched a lot before works,” he said. “Anything that I don’t have to pay attention to. It works every time.”
Lately, his show of choice is an episode of “The West Wing.” It’s the one, Copenhaver says, where they have to bring in a shrink because the president can’t sleep.