The bright lights and work demands of modern life create a hidden sleep crisis that affects Americans in countless ways, experts say.
During the age of COVID-19, sleep issues have gotten worse.
Most adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night, but 1 in 3 Americans gets less than seven hours in a typical day, according to the American Sleep Association.
Among young adults, 37 percent reported poor sleep duration.
During the pandemic, these numbers have gotten worse.
“Across the board, health behaviors, mental health, and things like insomnia have all been moving in a worse direction because of the lack of health care services and the prevalence of stress and unpredictable schedules on Americans,” said sleep expert Dr. Yelena Chernyak.
Sleep loss has been on the rise since at least 1991, according to Gallup poll numbers. The 1990s were a time when personal computer ownership rose rapidly.
The two trends might be connected, experts say, with sleep problems tracing back to two main sources—excessive work and excessive screen time.
“Sleep is not a luxury,” Dr. Abhinav Singh said. “It’s a biological necessity.”
But sleep is boring, Singh said. Screens are entertaining. Consistently, Americans have chosen them instead.
“When you’re hungry, what do you look for? Food. When you’re thirsty, what do you look for? A glass of water. When you’re sleepy, what do you look for? The ‘next episode’ button,” Singh said.
The average American now gets 6 1/2 hours of sleep per night, he said. This habit strains the body and can cause countless other health issues.
Lost sleep now means higher blood pressure, waste remains in the brain, higher blood sugar, and clogged blood vessels, Singh said. These issues can cause heart disease, early-onset Alzheimer’s, and other problems.
But American culture sees sleep loss as a trophy, Singh said. Americans are proud that they did something more valuable with their time than sleep.
“Sleeping is still equated with laziness, being demotivated, not interested, complacent, all these adjectives falsely get added to sleeping. It’s looked at as negative.”
Sleeping five hours or less can increase the chances of dying of all causes by 15 percent, according to studies.
“There should be a warning on all those streaming websites.”
Most doctors say our sleep schedules started collapsing with the invention of the electric light. The popularization of screen devices was another turning point, said Dr. Angela Drake, a University of California–Davis clinical professor. One problem technology has created is a higher amount of disturbed sleep.
“The increase in sleep disturbances really started with computers and computer gaming, even before the internet,” she said.
Drake said that many of her patients spend all night using electronic tablets, shopping, using the internet, or on technology.
“I had a lady who woke up every night at 4 o’clock and she would read on her iPad,” Drake said.
Once the woman switched the tablet for a normal book, the sleep problems disappeared, she said.
Although scientists agree that sleep is important, they still have little idea how sleep works.
“Every animal in the universe has to sleep. If you don’t sleep, you don’t live,” Drake said.
Experiments suggest that sleep cleans the brain, cements learning, heals the body, improves metabolism, and performs several other important functions.
At least one rare genetic disease, fatal familial insomnia, makes people become unable to sleep, Drake said. Those who suffer from it die within three years, even if nothing else is wrong with them.
Even in less extreme cases, sleeplessness can cause problems including diabetes, weight gain, mood issues, depression, and vehicle accidents.
“Anything that causes inefficient sleep is going to increase your risk for a lot of long-term diseases, because it basically just creates an inflammatory state in your body,” said Dr. Kori Ascher, a sleep expert.
According to estimates from the research organization RAND Corporation, the United States likely loses $411 billion per year to mistakes and inefficiency caused by lack of sleep.
Accident reports on events such as the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the crash of American Airlines Flight 1420 all likely had lost sleep as a factor.
Sleep loss also affects problems that often prove harder to measure, psychologist Dr. Nicholas Kardaras said. Studies have shown that lost sleep impacts impulsive action.
“If you’re not getting that really good sleep, you seem distracted and error [prone], irritable, and jittery, and jumpy the next day,” he said.
Modern life and now the COVID-19 pandemic leave people vulnerable to sleep deprivation.
People stay up all night playing video games because the games throw off the body’s sense of time, Kardaras said. The excitement from gaming also keeps people awake.
“It spikes dopamine as much as a sexual experience, and it spikes adrenaline pretty high,” he said.
Gaming researchers design games to spike blood pressure and keep people excited, Kardaras said. Light from screens also throws off the sleep cycle.
“The blue screen itself, the radiant screen, disrupts our circadian sleep cycle,” Kardaras said. “Our brains and our nervous systems process that as daytime.”
Kardaras runs an Austin, Texas, clinic for young people addicted to video games.
Often his patients suffer from a severe lack of sleep, he said. Once they start sleeping normally, their personalities change for the better.
“They become almost entirely different people,” he said. “They’re more focused, they’re calmer, they’re less anxious, less depressed.
“Just sleep is a critical ingredient to our mental well-being and gaming does do a pretty significant number on our healthy sleep patterns.”
Modern video games aren’t like older forms of entertainment, according to Dr. Stephen Amira, a sleep expert. They’re more engaging than television.
“It’s not passive. It’s meant to be engaging,” he said. “A lot of people are spending a lot of time online doing things that are not as relaxing as they had in the past.”
The internet never turns off for the night, Amira said. There’s always more to do, more to play, and more to see.
“Nothing signs off anymore,” he said.
For children, sleep is especially important, Amira said.
“We know that growth hormone in children is secreted primarily during a particular stage of sleep called ‘slow wave sleep,’” he said.
Compared to Europeans, Americans sleep less, according to a University of Michigan study.
This difference comes from culture, said Dr. Kori Ascher.
“We don’t put any value on sleep,” she said. “If you’re in Europe, they say go and take a nap every day.”
In America, people prioritize work and achievement more, she said. Studies show that Americans work about 25 percent more than Europeans.
Often, people who feel overworked find free time by sacrificing sleep.
This phenomenon has earned the name “revenge bedtime procrastination.”
But by trading sleep for work, people lose in the long run, according to the Sleep Foundation.
“A lack of sleep is tied to irritability and other difficulties regulating emotions. It’s also been connected to mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety,” the foundation’s website reads.
The good news is that sleep is under our control, Drake said.
“There’s no such thing as a bad sleeper,” she said. “You have learned these habits, and these ways of being, and you can learn new ways.”
According to experts, getting enough sleep is like any other health practice. It requires discipline and willingness to improve, said Drake.
If people darken their surroundings and turn off interactive electronic devices, they will usually sleep well, she said. Keeping TVs outside the bedroom also helps.
“It isn’t just the light, though, it’s the activity, it’s the noise. It’s engaging your brain.”
But patients often aren’t willing to change. As a result, fixing a sleep schedule means working together with the person in need of help, Drake said.
“If you tell people that they’ve got to take the TV out of their room, they usually won’t come back for a second appointment.”
Drake said she usually looks for compromise solutions with patients. Even small steps such as switching from playing video games to watching TV can help. Seeing good results from consistent small steps often leads to larger changes for the better.
Often, people who believe they are “bad sleepers” will sleep easily under the right circumstances, Drake said.
The best way to get people to prioritize sleep is by explaining its benefits, sleep expert Dr. Yelena Chernyak said. People respond poorly to negative incentives.
With more sleep, life improves in many ways, Chernyak said. People feel well-rested and perform at a higher level.
“What could you gain, and how worth it would more sleep be for you?” she asked.