How To Change The World: Get More Sleep

02/13/2017 08:24 am ET

Are sleep issues the world’s most under-diagnosed health issues? How might our world change if we all got more and better sleep? Despite focused diets, ongoing workout plans and efforts to get in touch with spirituality, today’s society never seems to get enough sleep. This article is about how to change that.

The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night's sleep. (Joseph Grossman)

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke estimates that about 25% American adults suffer from sleep issues--that is, everything from insomnia to snoring that disturbs your normal sleep patterns. By my own estimate, I would say that sleep problems are more likely to impact the lives of closer to 50% of the population.

It was in 1996 that I first started to wonder about sleep. Standing in front a hundred or so ‘lifers,’ men serving a life sentence, under the flourescent lights of Green Haven Correctional Facility, I talked about a topic near to my heart: the potential of entrepreneurship to help these guys out and give them something to live for. When I looked up, I noticed something odd: it was like they hadn’t heard me, many of them staring blankly, asleep with their eyes open. ‘How many of you have sleeping problems,’ I asked. Eighty-three raised their hands.

My own hypothesis is that sleep issues have the power to create huge problems, and that power is amplified among disadvantaged populations. Just imagine this: you are working a minimum wage job, you didn’t get enough sleep the night before and you encounter one of life’s extraordinary challenges--be it a car wreck, a family conflict, or financial hardship. What happens? You are much more likely to handle it badly. (In fact, we are now seeing that more and more airlines crashes may be caused in part by lack of sleep).

Personally, I’ve had a lifelong struggle with sleep. It goes all the way back to my mother’s brain injury, when I had to stay up all night with her. From there, I developed an anxiety that most people can relate to. When would I make up for that sleep? Would I be rested when I woke up? Would this affect my sleep tomorrow night?

The American Academy of Sleep Science recommends a minimum of seven hours of sleep for a healthy adult. But millions of people barely manage that.

One reason is Sleep Apnea, a sleep disorder that causes sufferers to stop breathing during their sleep. In some cases, a person can stop breathing up to 100 times per hour but even in its less severe incarnations, it is a worrisome disorder.

It works by preventing the brain from getting oxygen and over decades can lead to serious health issues. Daily suffers feel tired and drowsy, often have weight problems, are more likely to suffer from dementia or alzheimers, and are more likely to experience divorce. In my own opinion, having served on the board of the Nation Suicide Prevention Society of America, a large percentage of suicides are at least in small part caused by sleep issues. My insight years ago at Green Haven was that a lifetime of incarceration--that led to failing a course, getting disengaged, committing petty crimes--could perhaps come down to lack of sleep. How many of them, I wondered, were grouchy, rude and misbehaving because of a sleep issue like Sleep Apnea.

Sleep disorders like this one are by no means a new phenomenon. A hundred and fifty years ago, sufferers were diagnosed with ‘Pickwickian syndrome,’ named after Dickens' The Pickwick Papers no less. But up until the mid ‘90s, these issues were often passed off as entirely weight-related or in need of a pep talk. After three long years of feeling sluggish and complaining about sleep issues, I myself wasn’t diagnosed until 1998. Now, 18 years later, I rely on the latest technology to help me get a good night’s rest, waking up each morning to review my oxygen levels from the night before and sleeping better than I have in my life with great productivity gains as a writer and teacher.

Marc Gordon demonstrates the life-changing CPAP

Respiratory Care Practitioner and CEO of Newtec ME, Marc Gordon has been working with people suffering from sleep issues for over 30 years. He started his career as the ‘milkman of oxygen’ and quickly noticed just how many patients of his did not know how to use their equipment or even the options that were available to him. Mr. Gordon’s company provides Continuous Positive Airway Pressure machines or CPAPs to fulfil that very need. “The impact on patients can be substantial,” he said. “I have seen countless patients that feel their CPAP machines have changed their life and are afraid of going without even one night.”

Marc Gordon at a Sleep Society meeting.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for Sleep Apnea other than a tracheotomy. Mr. Gordon advises that “weight loss can be a cure for some but not all,” so starting on a weight loss program may be your first step.

Imagine for just one moment that everyone got a good night’s sleep. I wager that productivity would increase by at least 20% overnight. Our society would be better at solving problems, better at staying healthy, and be more civically responsible. The potential of a good night’s sleep to impact our world is astronomical, so why not care for your sleep like you do your job, your weight or your family? Many of the world's problems that after 1000 of years of causing suffering and pain may have been solved years ago by a non-sleep deprived society.

Signs Of Sleep Apnea According to Marc Gordon

  • Snoring followed by no breathing and a load snort is an indicator (patients that sleeps alone are more difficult to identify)
  • Daytime sleepiness with dozing even after a full 7-8 hours of sleep
  • Morning headaches
  • Waking up feeling like you are gagging or cannot breathe
  • Obesity is a strong contributor for Sleep Apnea but lean individuals can also have sleep Apnea
  • Being irritable and being unproductive
  • Self-medicating with drugs or alcohol to get a good night’s sleep (9 million Americans use dangerous prescription sleep aids every night)

It is time to stop making fun of sleep issues and to stop ignore them--may be then we can begin to solve what is one of our world’s most prevalent problems.

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