Five Things You Need to Know If You’re African American And Can’t Sleep

04/25/2017 05:28 pm ET Updated May 05, 2017
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Sleeplessness in America is a growing epidemic that leaves more than 80 million people waking up on the wrong side of the bed every morning. For years, stress, poor sleep habits, longer work days and the struggle to achieve a work-life balance have been considered leading factors in America’s sleep decline. Now we can add race to that mix.

As it turns out, African Americans are more tired than any other race in the U.S. In a recent CDC study, nearly 67 percent of white respondents got the minimum seven hours associated with good sleep habits. Just over half (54 percent) of African Americans achieved the same feat. Another study reveals African American participants were five times more likely than whites to get less than six hours of sleep a night. This sleep gap has sounded alarms for the health care provider community.

While race is by no means the determining factor in sleep health, there is mounting evidence that we need to consider race when we study sleep and treat sleep related problems. As we embark on National Sleep Awareness Week, let’s use this opportunity to get serious about getting black communities some more shuteye. If you are African American and having a tough time sleeping, here’s what you need to know.

  1. Chronic sleep deprivation is bad, regardless of your race. Sometimes sleep problems can be solved with simple behavioral changes, like setting a regular sleep-wake schedule, establishing a soothing bedtime routine and allowing for at least seven hours of sleep each night. If you think you are one of the 30-plus percent who are chronically sleep deprived and can’t get your sleep routine in check, get help.

  2. For African Americans, chronic sleep deprivation may explain higher health risks. Poor sleep is a risk factor for heart disease, diabetes and obesity – all conditions that disproportionally affect the African American community. Addressing sleep problems early may help control these deadly problems or improve treatment outcomes for people who suffer from them.

  3. Don’t sleep on treatment. An astounding 50 to 70 million people suffer from sleep disorders, and again, there is evidence that blacks are disproportionally affected. In a report by the journal Sleep, 12.8 percent of African American had sleep apnea, compared to only 7.4 percent of whites. Health disparities for African Americans, such as obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes, also play a role in apnea, so pay attention to the warning signs. If you think you suffer from a sleep condition, be sure to seek out a health practitioner, get diagnosed and follow through with your treatment.

  4. It may be a neighborhood thing, not a race thing. Sleep disparities between races may be environmental or geographical, rather than physical. Areas with lots of pollution, more mass transit noise, bright lights and higher crime rates may be stronger influencers of sleep quality than any gene or physical trait, and the people who live in these areas may experience more stress and disturbed sleep as a result.

  5. Sleep is never a “nice to have” health bonus. It’s time we as a nation start to treat sleep like we do diet and exercise. Sleep should be one of the first things you discuss with your provider during an office visit, and it should be tracked alongside things like weight, blood pressure and cholesterol as a key indicator in overall health. If your provider seems disinterested in sleep talk, find another one. Nurse practitioners can be a great first line of defense when your sleep is out of whack.

The takeaway here is that sleep is critically important to every single one of us. Sleep studies have been going on for years, but only recently have researchers rolled up their sleeves to tackle the relationship between race and sleep habits. While the jury is still out on why race seems to be a factor in sleep health, we know the consequences of poor sleep for any race. If you’re an adult living in the US, there is more than a 30 percent chance you are sleep deprived right now. And if you’re African American, there’s an even greater chance you’re not getting your 40 winks each night.

It’s time to put sleep problems to bed by making sleep a health priority. You may be so tired you forget what it feels like to be rested, but I assure you, a little taste of the sleep nectar and you will be calling it a night much earlier from now on, and potentially saving your life in the process.

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