Thirty-four percent. This is the percentage of adults who say sleepiness interferes with their daytime activities, from a survey by the National Sleep Foundation. Think about that. One-third of us report being too sleepy to be at our best.
My patients often tell me "Sure, I'm sleepy if I'm not doing anything, but I stay busy and don't notice it." I often reply that's like not drinking water and then having to concentrate on something else so you won't notice you're thirsty.
Many of us view excessive sleepiness as a lifestyle issue, something we can overcome if we set our minds to it. The unfortunate reality is that in our 24-hour society the notion of getting enough sleep seems old-fashioned. We simply assume that if we sleep less we will get more accomplished. The desire to do it all (work, family, hobbies, social life) has led us to carve hours out of our nightly sleep. Societal pressures have reduced our total sleep time by about 20 percent over the past century.
It is important to realize why this pattern is not only unhealthy but why it is also dangerous. Consider the following: 23 percent of people polled admitted to falling asleep while driving in the past year. Furthermore, 24,000 people die each year in accidents caused directly or in part by falling asleep at the wheel.
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A lack of sleep and even small, legal amounts of alcohol can be a dangerous, unpredictable mixture when operating a car.
One solution is obvious: Get more sleep. Research shows that the addition of relatively small amounts of sleep per day can result in major improvements in our daytime performance and happiness. How much sleep is considered enough? Eight hours per night has been shown to be optimal for most people. Why not forgo a little late-night television in order to feel at your peak all day and keep others safe on the job or on the road?
One important thing to remember is that if you feel you are getting enough hours of sleep but remain excessively sleepy or fatigued, then further evaluation may be needed. Discuss your symptoms with your doctor, as the diagnosis and treatment of a sleep disorder might be needed to allow you to feel fully rested.
Dr. Alexander Tzouanakis, a pulmonologist with Baptist Pulmonary and Critical Care Associates, is on the staff of the Central Baptist Hospital Sleep Diagnostic Center.