The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

T.S. Wiley Headshot

Dying for a Good Night's Sleep

Posted: Updated:

"I have only a bare working knowledge of the human brain but it's enough to make me proud to be an American. Your brain has a trillion neurons and every neuron has ten thousand little dendrites. The system of intercommunication is awe-inspiring. It's like a galaxy that you can hold in your hand, only more complex, more mysterious."

"Why does this make you proud to be an American?"

"The infant's brain develops in response to stimuli. We still lead the world in stimuli ..."

--Don DeLillo, White Noise

America is home to the brightest and the best and the sickest people in the world. We hold the lead in productivity, eating disorders, SAT scores, diabetes, cutting-edge technology, heart disease and cancer. What do all of those accomplishments have in common?

Well, it's certainly not a high-fat diet or a lack of exercise.

In our culture, people boast how little fat they eat and how little sleep they can get by on. These two accomplishments are an outward declaration of our ambition and stamina. Our national motto is, "You snooze, You lose." The word "overtime" is now archaic. In order to apply such a measure to time, we would have to acknowledge a stopping point in the workday. It's the notion of "quitting time" that's the real artifact.

We've invented sound-bites over the decades to describe the stress of success, from the relatively benign "Type A" personality and "a real Go-Getter" to more disparaging terms like "burnout case" and "success freak."

Europeans have never called each other names like that.

In this country, we work at least 10 hours a day, try to exercise a few hours a week, and suffer. Deepak says love will keep us together and the government now even agrees we should take a toke or two for medicinal purposes. In this culture, when we're young, we take drugs to relax; when we're old, we take drugs to survive.

Has it always been that way? Only for baby boomers.

By the 1940s, postwar America was describing our uniquely driven lifestyle as "keeping up with the Joneses," "climbing the corporate ladder," and our successes to the self-congratulatory "good old-fashioned hard work," as though we were the only people on the globe trying to accomplish anything. To acquire the worldwide lead, Americans have, metaphorically speaking, pulled a century-long "all-nighter."

We live in cities that never sleep, in a country that rocks 24/7.

It turns out that acquiring the lead in obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer was just a bonus. Of course, golf had to go and those Sunday picnics with the family. It would appear that Americans only have time for only one serious hobby in the year 2010--worrying about dying. Now that maintaining our failing health has usurped whatever time we had left after work for our spouses or children, something as negligible as sleeping is truly unthinkable.

Americans have all but given up sleeping. At most, we get a solid five to six hours a night. We all believe we're doing fine on that. We set alarms on smart phones, use Starbucks or Red Bull as our drug of choice, and, in some circles, coke, the real thing, not the beverage. The anti-sleeping prescription drug - Provigil has replaced Ritalin in the ivy-covered cloisters of Academia.

We might be tired, but we're not showing it. Or are we?

According to studies on work-related incompetence, it seems we're starting to crack. Ten years ago the National Commission on Sleep Disorders Research (NCSDR) estimated that the annual direct cost to employers was $15.9 billion back then, and they were only talking about money. Twenty-eight years ago, the Journal of the American Medical Association published the results of "Project Sleep" from the Association of Sleep Disorders Center declaring that seventy million Americans reported trouble sleeping. That was almost three decades before we all began to have private lap dances with our laptops at two in the morning. The most common disease state was the "disorder of hypersomnia,' or excessive sleepiness. Forty-two percent (or close to half) of America back in 1982 were, literally, too tired to stay awake.

And, ironically, another 26 percent couldn't get to sleep or stay asleep. That means for Baby Boomers, like us, we've been sleep deprived at least half of our lives. It's no wonder we've missed the possibility that --that alone, could be why we're all so sick.

So why let sleep loss keep you up nights? Because when you sleep less than you're meant to, melatonin isn't the only hormone affected. There are at least 10 different major hormones, as well as many more neurotransmitters in the brain and immune-mitigated cytokines, that go sideways when you don't sleep enough. Lost melatonin is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. It is all the other hormonal shifts resting on the melatonin "timer" that change appetite, fertility and mental and cardiac health that will kill you.

As a nation, we are sick because we don't sleep. We are fat and diabetic because we don't sleep. We are dying from cancer and heart disease because we don't sleep.

An avalanche of peer-reviewed scientific papers supports the conclusion that when we don't sleep in sync with the hours of daylight and dark and the seasonal variation in light exposure, we fundamentally alter a balance of nature that has been programmed into our physiology since Day One. This cosmic clock is embedded in the physiology of every cell in every living thing that exists. This new approach to illness is humbling and unsettling, but that's the cost of the truth.

When extended day length, created by artificial light-and-dark cycles, became the norm a short 90 years ago with the widespread use of the light bulb, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer suddenly became the official causes of death on the coroner's reports, instead of the usual infection or injury common before the advent of the light bulb.

Ever since these diseases began to surface as major killers, the efforts on the part of science and medicine to explain the startling rise in the "diseases of civilization" never bothered to examine any other overwhelming environmental change except diet.

And all these years later, as Americans continue to die in droves, the doctors and the researchers all continue to fish in the same pond.

Maybe it's time to see the light for what it really is.

The biggest change human beings have lived through in the last ten thousand years happened less than a century ago. There has been no time to adapt to chronic short nights, even if it was possible; which it may not be. Electricity and the widespread use of the light bulb qualify, along with the discovery of fire, the advent of agriculture, as a point of no return in human history. One hundred years ago, in 1910, the average adult was still sleeping approximately ten hours a night. Now the average adult is lucky to get a solid six.

Most of us don't. Those numbers add up to an extra 1,460 waking hours a year.

In nature, we would sleep 4,370 hours out of a possible 8,760, or almost exactly half of our lives. Ninety years ago, we were down to 3,650 hours. Now we are lucky to get a measly 2,190. If nature keeps a light and dark score, and you can bet she does, that means we only get to live about half as long because we come into this world with just enough hormones for the ones we use in the day light and the ones we need for night. And when you take two days in one by staying up till the wee hours, they come off the end of your, physiologically speaking, as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, some sort of cancer or a heart attack because you run out of hormones.

We may have bought back a little time against injury and infection, the major killers at the turn of the last century with surgery and antibiotics, but think how long we might live if we slept, too. In the 1970s, Americans devoted 27 hours a week to "leisure" time. In the 1990s, we're down to 15. And we work at least 48 hours a week, compared to 35 for the average worker in the 1970s. Then we had hobbies, we were players of baseball and builders of model ships, members of the garden club and Boy Scout troop leaders. Now, although, the number of hours in a day are approximately the same, the ratio between work and everything else has shifted considerably.

In the forty years since 1970, we've found new passions to add to the old duties--exercising, going from doctor to doctor, commuting through ever-increasing traffic, watching 950 channels on TV or the computer, and the most recent time bandits--Email, eBay and Twitter. No wonder there's almost no time time left to sleep or take care of the children. So why didn't the guardians of our health look at stress and lack of sleep before they placed the entire blame on food?

Once upon a time we existed in sync with all of the biophysical cycles and rhythms in nature. Now, not only do we control the food supply, but we have pushed back the night and the weather. There is a price for playing God.

And now here comes the bill: the unending artificial light and heat we live in registers as the long days of an eternal summer on that internal sundial because night never falls and winter never comes.

As mammals, we are hardwired to store fat and reproduce when exposed to long light days and then to sleep it off or at the very least starve ... for awhile. But now we don't sleep and we don't starve, either; at least, we don't starve for carbohydrates, ever.

That's why we're fat and getting fatter. It's endless August in our bodies and minds.

While fire, with its illumination, extended our day enough to evolutionarily effect intellect and reproduction, limitless electricity may just put us under for good. Next Blog ... How.

References:

Wang, L. C , et al., "The 'Hibernation Induction Trigger': Specificity and Validity of Bioassay Using the 13-Lined Ground Squirrel," Cryobiology 25, no. 4 (August 1998): 355-362.

Wehr, Thomas A., et al., "Conservation of Photoperiod-Responsive Mechanisms in Humans," American Journal of Physiology 265 (October 1993): R846-R857.

"The Duration of Human Melatonin Secretion and Sleep Respond to Changes in Day Length (Photoperiod)," Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism 73, no. 6 (1991): 1276-1280.,

"Suppression of Men's Responses to Seasonal Changes in Day Length by Modern Artificial Lighting," American Journal of Physiology 269, no. 38 (1995): R173-R178.,

"Melatonin and Seasonal Rhythms," Journal of Biological Rhythms 12, no. 6 (December 1997): 518-527.

Wei, Y., et al., "Tissue-Specific Expression of the Human Receptor for Glucagon-Like Peptide-I: Brain, Heart, and Pancreatic Forms Have the Same Deduced Amino Acid Sequences," FEBS Letters 358, no. 3 (January 30,1995): 219-224.

David Spiegel, "Losing Sleep Over Cancer", Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA

Christian Mirescu, Jennifer D. Peters, Liron Noiman, Elizabeth Gould,"Sleep deprivation inhibits adult neurogenesis in the hippocampus by elevating glucocorticoids", Department of Psychology, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544 October 10, 2006 (received for review June 12, 2006
The metabolic consequences of sleep deprivation, Sleep Medicine Reviews, Volume 11, Issue 3, Pages 163-178

K. Knutson, K. Spiegel, P. Penev, E. Van Cauter

Circadian Rhythms and Metabolic Syndrome: From Experimental Genetics to Human Disease Circulation Research February 19, 2010 106:447-462

Quantity and Quality of Sleep and Incidence of Type 2 Diabetes: A systematic review and meta-analysis, Diabetes Care February 1, 2010 33:414-420

Gender-Specific Association Between Self-reported Sleep Duration and Falls in High-Functioning Older , Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences February 1, 2010 65A:190-196

Protecting Sleep, Promoting Health in Later Life: A Randomized Clinical Trial, Psychosomatic Medicine February 1, 2010 72:178-186

Day Napping and Short Night Sleeping Are Associated With Higher Risk of Diabetes in Older Adults, Diabetes Care January 1, 2010 33:78-83

Sleep Duration and Hyperglycemia Among Obese and Non-obese Children Aged 3 to 6 Years, Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine January 1, 2010164:46-52

Association of Sleep Adequacy With More Healthful Food Choices and Positive Workplace Experiences Among Motor Freight Workers American Journal of Public Health November 1, 2009 99:S636-S643

Sleep Duration, Lifestyle Intervention, and Incidence of Type 2 Diabetes in Impaired Glucose Tolerance: The Finnish Diabetes Prevention Study, Diabetes Care November 1, 2009 32:1965-1971

Exposure to Recurrent Sleep Restriction in the Setting of High Caloric Intake and Physical Inactivity Results in Increased Insulin

Resistance and Reduced Glucose Tolerance, Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism September 1, 200994:3242-3250
Sleep-Related Problems in Common Medical Conditions Chest February 1, 2009 135:563-572

Sleep and the Cardiovascular System ACCP Sleep Medicine Board Review January 1, 2009 4:123-132
Sleep Duration and Coronary Heart Disease Mortality Among Chinese Adults in Singapore: A Population-based Cohort Study American Journal of Epidemiology December 15, 2008 168:1367-1373
Correlates of Short and Long Sleep Duration: A Cross-Cultural Comparison Between the United Kingdom and the United States: The Whitehall II Study and the Western New York Health Study, American Journal of Epidemiology December 15, 2008 168:1353-1364
Short Sleep Duration as an Independent Predictor of Cardiovascular Events in Japanese Patients With Hypertension, Archives of Internal Medicine November 10, 2008 168:2225-2231
Approaches to Treatment of Pre-Diabetes and Obesity and Promising New Approaches to Type 2 Diabetes Diabetes Care July 1, 2008 31:1461-1466

Molecular clocks, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease Diabetes and Vascular Disease Research June 1, 2008 5:89-95

Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Metabolic Syndrome: Alterations in Glucose Metabolism and Inflammation Proceedings of the American Thoracic Society February 15, 20085:207-217
Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Type 2 Diabetes*: Interacting Epidemics Chest February 1, 2008 133:496-506

Slow-wave sleep and the risk of type 2 diabetes in humans, PNAS January 22, 2008 105:1044-1049

Sleep Disorders, Glucose Regulation, and Type 2 Diabetes Biological Research For Nursing January 1, 2008 9:231-243

The Insidious Effects of Lost Sleep, DOC News October 1, 2007 4:4

Short Duration of Sleep and Unintentional Injuries among Adolescents in China, American Journal of Epidemiology November 1, 2007 166:1053-1058

Insulin Resistance Concepts Diabetes Care May 1, 2007 30:1320-1326

Sleep Apnoea & Hypertension: Physiological bases for a causal relation: Sleep and the metabolic syndrome Experimental Physiology January 1, 2007 92:67-78

Sleep duration and health in young adults, Archives of Internal Medicine September 18, 2006 166:1689-1692

Sleep and health: everywhere and in both directions, Archives of Internal Medicine September 18, 2006 166:1686-1688

Carcinogenicity of shift-work, painting, and fire-fighting, The Lancet Oncology, Volume 8, Issue 12, Pages 1065-1066

K. Straif, R. Baan, Y. Grosse, B. Secretan, F. Ghissassi, V. Bouvard, A. Altieri, L. Benbrahim-Tallaa, V. Cogliano Journal of Clinical Oncology, Vol 26, No 15 (May 20), 2008: pp. 2431-2432, 2008.
Casti, John L., "Lighter than Air," Nature 382 (August 29,1996): 769-77

Nelson, Gary J., et al.,"Low-Fat Diets Do Not Lower Plasma Cholesterol Levels in Healthy Men Compared to High-Fat Diets with Similar Fatty Acid Composition at Constant Caloric Intake," Lipids 30, no. 11 (1995): 969-976.

Zhao, Shaving, et al., "Human Blue-Light Photoreceptor hCRY2 Specifically Interacts with Protein Serine/Threonine Phosphatase 5 and Modulates Its Activity," Photochemistry and Photobiology 66, no. 5 (November 1997): 727-731.

Von Treuer, K., et al., "Overnight Human Plasma Melatonin, Cortisol, Prolactin, TSH, under Conditions of Normal Sleep, Sleep Deprivation, and Sleep Recovery," Journal of Pineal Research 20, no. 1 (January 1996): 7-14.

Wang, L. C , et al., "The 'Hibernation Induction Trigger': Specificity and Validity of Bioassay Using the 13-Lined Ground Squirrel," Cryobiology 25, no. 4 (August 1998):355-362.

"The Duration of Human Melatonin Secretion and Sleep Respond to Changes in Day Length (Photoperiod)," Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism 73, no. 6 (1991): 1276-1280.

"Suppression of Men's Responses to Seasonal Changes in Day Length by Modern Artificial Lighting," American Journal of Physiology 269, no. 38 (1995): R173-R178.

"Melatonin and Seasonal Rhythms," Journal of Biological Rhythms 12, no. (December 1997): 518-527.

Wei, Y., et al., "Tissue-Specific Expression of the Human Receptor for Glucagon-Like Peptide-I: Brain, Heart, and Pancreatic Forms Have the Same Deduced Amino Acid Sequences," FEBS Letters 358, no. 3 (January 30,1995): 219-224.

Karine Spiegel, Esra Tasali, Plamen Penev, and Eve Van Cauter, Brief Communication: Sleep Curtailment in Healthy Young Men Is Associated with Decreased Leptin Levels, Elevated Ghrelin Levels, and Increased Hunger and Appetite Ann Intern Med, Dec 2004; 141: 846 - 850.

Daniel F. Kripke, Lawrence Garfinkel, Deborah L. Wingard, Melville R. Klauber, and Matthew R. Marler Mortality Associated With Sleep Duration and Insomnia Arch Gen Psychiatry, Feb 2002; 59: 131 - 136.

Hammond EC, Garfinkel L,. Coronary heart disease, stroke, and aortic aneurysm. Factors in the etiology. Arch Environ Health

1969;19:167-82. 2003 Sleep in America Poll. Washington: National Sleep Foundation; 2003.
Sleep in America: 2000. Washington: National Sleep Foundation; 2000.

Hammond EC, Some preliminary findings on physical complaints from a prospective study of 1,064,004 men and women. Am J Public

Health Nations Health 1964;54:11-23.
Wingard DL, Berkman LF, Brand RJ. A multivariate analysis of health-related practices: a nine-year mortality follow-up of the

Alameda County Study. Am J Epidemiol 1982;116:765-75.

Kripke DF, Garfinkel L, Wingard DL, Klauber MR, Marler MR. Mortality associated with sleep duration and insomnia. Arch Gen

Psychiatry 2002;59:131-6.
Ayas NT, White DP, Manson JE, et al. A prospective study of sleep duration and coronary heart disease in women. Arch Intern Med

2003;163:205-9.
Patel SR, Ayas NT, Malhotra MR, et al. A prospective study of sleep duration and mortality risk in women. Sleep 2004;27:440-4.

Sleep Duration Vol. 29, No. 8, 2006

Lusardi P, Mugellini A, Preti P, Zoppi A, Derosa G, Fogari R. Effects of a restricted sleep regimen on ambulatory blood pressure monitoring in normo-tensive subjects. Am J Hypertens 1996;9:503-5

Kato M, Phillips BG, Sigurdsson G, Narkiewicz K, Pesek CA, Somers VK. Effects of sleep deprivation on neural circulatory control. Hypertension 2000;35:1173-5.

Meier-Ewert HK, Ridker PM, Rifai N, et al. Effect of sleep loss on C-reactive protein, an inflammatory marker of cardiovascular risk. JAm Coll Cardiol. 2004;43:678-83.

Lusardi P, Zoppi A, Preti P, Pesce RM, Piazza E, Fogari R. Effects of insufficient sleep on blood pressure in hypertensive patients: a

24-hour study. Am J Hypertens 1999;12:63-8.

Quan SF, Howard BV, Iber C, et al. The Sleep Heart Health Study: design, rationale, and methods. Sleep 1997;20:1077-85.

Gottlieb DJ, Punjabi NM, Newman AB, et al. Association of sleep time with diabetes mellitus and impaired glucose tolerance. Arch

Intern Med 2005;165:863-7.
Nieto FJ, Young TB, Lind BK, et al. Association of sleep-disordered breathing, sleep apnea, and hypertension in a large ommunity-based

study. JAMA 2000;283:1829-36.
The fifth report of the Joint National Commission on Detection, Evaluation and Treatment of High Blood Pressure (JNC V). The

Joint National Commission on Detection, Evaluation and Treatment of High Blood Pressure. Arch Intern Med 1993;153:154-83.

Redline S, Sanders MH, Lind BK, et al. Methods for obtaining and analyzing unattended polysomnography data for a multicenter study.Sleep 1998;21:759-67.
Ware JE Jr, Sherbourne CD. The MOS 36-item short-form health survey (SF-36). I. Conceptual framework and item selection. Med

Care 1992;30:473-83.

Tochikubo O, Ikeda A, Miyajima E, Ishii M. Effects of insufficient sleep on blood pressure monitored by a new multibiomedical

recorder. Hypertension 1996;27:1318-24.
Muenter NK, Watenpaugh DE, Wasmund WL, Wasmund SL,,Maxwell SA, Smith ML. Effect of sleep restriction on orthostatic

cardiovascular control in humans. J Appl Physiol 2000;88:966-72.

Spiegel K, Leproult R, Van Cauter E. Impact of sleep debt on metabolic and endocrine function. Lancet 1999;354:1435-9.

Leproult R, Copinschi G, Buxton O, Van Cauter E. Sleep loss results in an elevation of cortisol levels the next evening. Sleep

1997;20:865-70.
Vgontzas AN, Bixler EO, Lin HM, et al. Chronic insomnia is associated with nyctohemeral activation of the hypothalamicpituitary-

adrenal axis: clinical implications. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 2001;86:3787-94.

Rodenbeck A, Huether G, Ruther E, Hajak G. Interactions between evening and nocturnal cortisol secretion and sleep parameters

;324:159-63.in patients with severe chronic primary insomnia. Neurosci Lett2002
Edinger JD, Fins AI. The distribution and clinical significance of sleep time misperceptions among insomniacs. Sleep 1995;18:232-

Ayas NT, White DP, Al Delaimy WK, et al. A prospective study of self-reported sleep duration and incident diabetes in women. Diabetes Care 2003;26:380-4.

Paolo Verdecchia; Fabio Angeli; Claudia Borgioni; Roberto Gattobigio; Gianpaolo Reboldi ,"Ambulatory Blood Pressure and Cardiovascular Outcome in Relation to Perceived Sleep Deprivation", Archives of Internal Medicine, Vol 166, 16, September 18, 2006

Frequent nocturnal awakening in early life is associated with nonatopic asthma in children Kozyrskyj et al.Eur Respir J 2009;34:1288-1295,

Sleep-disordered breathing and metabolic consequences, Levy et al. Eur Respir J 2009;34:243-260.

Sleep Habits and Susceptibility to the Common Cold Cohen et al.Arch Intern Med 2009;169:62-67.

Sleep Disturbance and Depression Recurrence in Community-Dwelling Older Adults: A Prospective Study, Cho et al, ,Am.J.Psychiatry 2008;165:1543-1550.

C-reactive protein Levels and Sleep Disturbances: Observations Based on The Northern Finland 1966 Birth Cohort Study,Liukkonen et al.Psychosom. Med. 2007;69:756-761.

Michael R. Irwin, MD; Minge Wang, MSN; Capella O. Campomayor, MS; Alicia Collado-Hidalgo, PhD; Steve Cole, PhD,Sleep Deprivation and Activation of Morning Levels of Cellular and Genomic Markers of Inflammation,Arch Intern Med. 2006;166:1756-1762.