Lose just one hour of sleep a night and you compromise your well-being, productivity, and ability to think clearly, sleep experts say.
Yet many of us continue to sacrifice much-needed shut-eye by surfing the web, watching TV, and texting on our ubiquitous smartphones in the wee hours.
The latest Gallup poll on sleep showed that 40 percent of Americans are getting less than the recommended seven-to-nine hours a night. While the figures are similar to polls in the 1990s and 2000s, Americans are sleeping much less now than during the 1940s. Today, on average, we get 6.8 hours of sleep a night, down more than an hour from 1942.
On top of that, a new study indicates that sleep patterns can directly impact longevity. When researchers examined the link between sleep and diet on mortality among the elderly, they found that while sleep is critical to men's longevity, women's diets impact longevity more. They studied nearly 2,000 people and found that for both sexes, a lack of quality sleep can lead to a poor diet and a decreased sense of well being.
"Poor sleep has been associated with increased morbidity and mortality including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and coronary heart disease," researcher Mark Wahlqvist of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, said in a statement.
Our chronically tired society has created a lucrative industry, which is why the American sleep economy recently climbed to $32.4 billion a year.
It's nearly impossible, of course, for most of us to overhaul our nighttime sleep habits in the blink of an eye — that generally takes a dedicated, sustained effort, often with the help of professionals. Yet there's one relatively simple thing we can do to begin to pay down our sleep debt and, in the process, fix our productivity: Take a nap.
While brief daytime naps won't completely compensate for inadequate or poor nighttime sleep, taking a regular snooze of 20 to 30 minutes can help improve our mood, alertness and performance, say the experts. If you're feeling sleepy during the day, "a 20-minute nap can work wonders," said sleep specialist Patty Tucker of Napa Valley, California.
Dr. Amanda Beck, a professor of sleep medicine at the University of New Mexico, said taking a nap "is a good idea. Put a note on the door and nod out for 15 minutes. In a lot of ways, having a nap is a lot better than a cup of coffee," she told ABC News.
Naps can be classified in three ways, according to the National Sleep Foundation:
- Planned napping is taking a nap before you're sleepy, such as when you know you'll be up later than usual. It can be used to ward off tiredness later.
- Emergency napping is when you're suddenly so tired you can't continue with your current activity. This nap can help combat drowsy driving or fatigue brought on by physical labor.
- Habitual napping is taking a nap at the same time every day, such as naps taken by young children or naps by older adults right after lunch.
Many employers are becoming savvy to the benefits of napping and are looking anew at tiny closets or other seldom used spots and remodeling them into functional nap rooms. This is boosting a relatively new segment of the sleep industry.
A company called MetroNaps, founded in 2003 to provide workplaces with "rest facilities," has installed specially designed sleep pods for companies like Google, The Huffington Post, and the Arizona Diamondbacks. After Wesleyan University in Connecticut put the company's "energy pods" in its main library and science library, the feedback rolled in: "They've been a huge hit," librarian Patricia Tully reported.
Students liked that the pods provided "privacy in a public space" while letting them rest and recharge without having to trudge back to their dorms. "These 'energy pod' things might look like the hibernation capsules from the movie 'Alien,' but they provide a timeless napping experience," student Adam Keller wrote in The Wesleyan Argus, a campus publication.
There's also the "happier worker" issue. When Yarde Metals of Bristol, Conn., added nap rooms to new buildings, employee morale and productivity rose, "especially among shift workers," ABC News reported.
Experts say letting workers take a quick nap doesn't have to be a big production. Even ultra-short six-minute naps can yield handsome benefits: They help improve declarative memory, allowing employees to recall key facts and knowledge more readily — not a bad thing at all.
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