It’s Monday night—well, technically Tuesday morning. And I’m trying not to look at the alarm clock. It’s illuminated red numbers, which have long slipped into the single digits, are taunting me. A glowing reminder that I am awake despite all of my efforts to the contrary.
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), adults should regularly get at least seven hours of sleep a night. The nonprofit lists a host of potential side effects from lack of sleep including obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, a weakened immune system and an increased risk of death.
I can’t be the only one daunted by that suggestion.
Americans average 6.8 hours of sleep a night, according to a 2013 Gallup poll.
That same poll shows that 40 percent of us are sleeping six hours or fewer per night. And 14 percent of people reported grabbing five or fewer hours.
I’ve always had a complicated relationship with sleep. I’m a born night owl. My parents recall how I’d fight sleep as a child, convinced that if I went to bed before everyone else, I’d miss something. I watched most of the series “Three’s Company” during college because it was on TV in the middle of night.
I’m also a naturally anxious person. Sometimes, my brain just wants to relive an embarrassing moment from 15 years ago and play through possible alternative scenarios.
I tried to change my sleep habits after graduation. Adulthood doesn’t really accommodate those who’d rather see 2 a.m. than wake up at 6 a.m. And I’ve been largely successful. Now, I’m the one whining when my friends want to wait until last call to leave the bar on Friday night. The farmer’s market closes at noon tomorrow, guys. I can’t be out all night.
My biggest sleep problems currently stem from an unconventional work schedule. As a reporter for The Canton Repository, it’s not uncommon for me to work swing shifts a few nights a week. It’s hard to wake up at 7 a.m. Tuesday morning if you didn’t get home until 11:45 p.m. Monday night. And developing a regular sleep schedule when my work schedule is anything but normal is almost out of the question.
According to AASM, about 15 percent of full-time employees in the U.S. do shift work (nights, evenings, rotating shifts or other irregular schedules, according to the CDC). Shift workers—including doctors, nurses, emergency personnel, pilots, truck drivers and soldiers—can suffer from Shift Work Disorder, a chronic sleep problem that goes beyond my weekly bout of insomnia.
Employees who sleep less than seven hours a night are more likely to miss work. And while they may put in longer hours, they’re often less productive and motivated, and can struggle with concentrating, making decisions, problem solving and thinking creatively, according to AASM.
When I’m struggling to sleep in the middle of the night, it sometimes feels like I’m the only one in the world still awake. I know that’s ridiculous, so I asked my friends and coworkers about their own battle to get enough sleep.
My friend Caleb Gillombardo of Jackson Township just welcomed his first child. I wanted to know how his newborn daughter had impacted his ability to get a good night’s sleep.
Surprisingly, not too much.
“I’ve always been a light sleeper, and usually snap awake at small sounds or movements. On weekends, I will doze off when my daughter is napping, unless I’m trying to take advantage of that time to get some chores accomplished,” Caleb wrote in an email.
“Luckily, my daughter has been sleeping for around six hours herself, so there has not yet been a huge interruption to my typical sleep schedule. The last few hours of the night with her can be exhausting, however, as I’ve been up and running since 5 a.m. and she tends to get fussy (around 8 to 10 p.m.).”
Like me—maybe like most of us—Caleb has his own struggles with sleep.
He said he grabs about four to six hours on a typical night and plays catch-up with eight hours on weekends, plus the occasional nap. He cites working long, often 10-hour days, plus the responsibilities of being a husband and father.
“I have the most trouble sleeping when I am either thinking too much about work tasks or dealing with anxiety and depression,” he wrote. “I struggle with getting comfortable as well. I have yet to find a pillow that is supportive in a way that makes sleep easy.”
Fellow Repository reporter Kelly Byer is another occasional insomniac.
“My brain likes to think at night. It’s apparently the best time to wonder what the weather will be like or which task to cross off my to-do list tomorrow,” she wrote in an email.
“That’s one reason sleep doesn’t always come easy. Contributing factors also include irregular work hours, daily coffee consumption and a phone within arm’s reach to answer my brain’s late-night queries,” she added. “Although, the phone can help quiet my brain. The calm narration from a meditation app sometimes helps me fall asleep.”
So what’s the answer for us night owls?
The experts at AASM recommend developing healthy sleep habits—having a consistent sleep schedule and bedtime routine, going to bed only if you’re actually sleepy, keeping your room cool and comfortable, only using your bed for sleep and sex, avoiding electronic devices 30 minutes before bedtime, exercising and eating healthy, avoiding caffeine in the afternoons and alcohol before bedtime, and limiting fluids before bed.
Check out details at sleepeducation.org.
If that doesn’t work, talk to your doctor. They can rule out larger issues, such as sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome, and recommend solutions including cognitive behavioral therapy or medications.
I’m going to work on adopting some of those suggestions into my own life. My relationship with sleep has been complicated long enough. I think I’m ready to make a commitment.