Although most of us are loath to admit it, we are sleepy. Not tired — apparently we like to admit that all the time, but sleepy. As in actual sleep. As in bed, motionless, doing nothing.
“The way our society is run, there is not a value placed on sleep,” said Dr. Sarah Stolz, who has studied and treated sleep disorders for the last 20 years. "It's not OK to say ‘I’m sleepy.’ People like to say they’re tired because it makes it seem as if they’ve been busy and working hard. They don’t like to say they are sleepy because that sounds like they’re lazy.”
On average we sleep about 7.5 hours a night, according to sleep researchers, 1.5 hours fewer than we did 100 years ago, thanks mostly to technology and all of its conveniences, distractions, and responsibilities.
“When it comes to our sleep, we definitely should not be grateful to Edison,” said Stolz, who is the medical director of Sleep Medicine Associates, the largest facility of its type in the Northwest. (She was motivated to specialize in sleep disorders by the agonizing, 36-hour shifts she had to pull as a young doctor.)
We will lose even more sleep this weekend as we adjust to the lost hour of Daylight Savings Time, which kicks in early Sunday morning. Most of us, research shows, will sleep about 40 fewer minutes than usual. Although that sounds like a negligible amount of sleep deprivation, it will have measurable effects.
Researchers in Sweden concluded the number of people who have heart attacks rises slightly in the days after Daylight Savings Time (DST), the result of stress induced by lack of sleep. Researchers at Michigan State University recently discovered a correlation between an increase in the number of workplace injuries and the onset of DST.
While these two issues relate mostly to the elderly and those with hazardous occupations like mining and manufacturing, the loss of one hour of sleep also adversely affects a part of life almost all of us can relate to: A professor at the University of British Columbia found a general spike in the number of car accidents in Canada the Monday morning following DST, also blaming it on the inevitable, if relatively small, amount of sleep deprivation that comes with pushing our clocks forward.
In the early 1990s, Stanley Coren examined data that covered all reported traffic accidents in Canada over a two-year period. His research revealed an 8 percent jump in the number of car accidents immediately after the change to DST. In a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, Coren wrote, “these data show that small changes in the amount of sleep that people get can have major consequences in everyday activities,” and that even a change of one hour can disrupt sleep patterns for up to five days after the time shift.
Stolz, who is also the medical director of the Northwest Hospital Sleep Center, deduced that drivers are not necessarily falling asleep at the wheel the Monday after DST starts but “functioning at the edge,” not reacting as quickly, and not paying as much attention. (Driving after being awake for 24 hours is the functional equivalent of driving drunk, she said.)
So is one hour really that big a deal? Anecdotally, many of us would probably say we feel it for at least for a day or two. The reason, Stolz explained, is that we’re already operating near our limit.
“People are already running a deficit,” Stolz explained. “That is only compounded by taking away another hour. Most people don’t make up for it.”
The United States is one of about two dozen countries that advance one hour in the spring (and retreat one hour in the fall for Standard Time). The practice was first implemented during World War I as a fuel-savings measure, and again during World War II. Daylight Savings Time was instituted permanently in the 1960s in most of this country, so anyone younger than 50 probably has no memory of life without the time shift and is thus accustomed to the dread that approaches with DST and the rejoicing that accompanies the arrival of Standard Time and “falling back.”
Incidentally, the deficit created by DST is not balanced by the return to Standard Time, which triggers no decrease in accidents or injuries, nor does it lead to people getting more sleep the night before. Staying awake later is far easier than waking up sooner, Stolz pointed out.
Stolz said the world of sleepers is divided naturally into owls and larks, those of us who are genetically disposed to staying up and waking up late, and those of us who naturally retire and then rise early. Many of us, she said, are blends of the two. We are more or less born with a certain sleep disposition and cannot change them, with one caveat.
Regardless of our disposition, adolescence tends to increase our owl tendencies and old age tends to magnify our lark tendencies. In other words, even naturally lark teens tend to want to stay up late and have trouble waking up early in the morning (which runs counter to our school system’s policy of starting school earlier for students in middle and high school), and even owl senior-citizens want to go to bed earlier.
DST favors larks for obvious reasons. The culture, in general, also favors larks. Larks are viewed as industrious, productive, ambitious, hard-working; the worst thing a lark gets called is a party-pooper. Owls, on the other hand, face the stigma of laziness and slackerism.
“There is a pejorative assigned to owls,” said Stolz, who tends to be one herself, and, for the record, admitted to being sleepy when she did this interview. Even sleep professionals, apparently, do not get enough sleep.
Plenty of medical research suggests lack of sleep contributes to all kinds of health problems including obesity, and diminishes the quality of our personal and working lives in an array of ways. But while our government and institutions crusade against fat, sugar, obesity, smoking, pesticides, genetic crops, and bad posture, they do little to combat sleep impairment.
Offices come with gyms, juice bars, pool tables, even hair salons, but rarely a nap room. So for now, we must catch up on sleep in secret, with private shame, and without the endorsement and support of public-service announcements, mayoral initiatives, or celebrity infomericals.
Stolz has some advice to offset the deleterious effects of DST. Start adjusting to the time change as early as possible rather than waiting until Monday, she said. Don’t sleep in late on Sunday. Expose yourself to bright light that morning, and avoid caffeine that day.
“Allow yourself a chance to get drowsy (Sunday night),” Stolz said. “Do something quiet … and be careful on your way to work Monday, maybe just give yourself some slack that day. You might be a little crabby in the morning. You could be a little drowsy after lunch. You might feel forgetful or inattentive, maybe even a little depressed.”
And for those of us who find no relief at all, Standard Time will eventually arrive in eight months.
“If we were all well rested,” Stolz said. “we probably would not crave that extra hour of sleep in the fall.”