Not Missing a Thing

RamosWhat is it about little boys and guns?

Raising two boys, ages 7 and 4, I still marvel at their ability to pick up almost anything and immediately turn it into a gun. Neither my wife nor I allow our two boys to watch television shows or movies with violent content and shoot ‘em up story plots, we don’t own a gun, and I personally have never shot a gun in my life. At the same time, I see nothing wrong with someone owning a gun, yet I do have a problem with people who feel that they have a constitutional right to bear an AK-47 or other type of assault weapon. So why is it that most little boys, regardless of their exposure or lack of exposure to guns, see a stick on the ground and immediately pick it up, point it, and say bang? For the same reason that most children always want to stay up past their bed time and will always try to find an excuse not to go to sleep; it is simply part of their nature.

Once, when I asked my 7-year-old why he always wanted to stay up past his bedtime, he simply replied, “Because I don’t want to miss anything.” When he said this, he was all of 4 years old. I have no idea what he thought he was going to miss, but this thinking that we are going to miss something is one of the reasons we live in a society where a large portion of the populace is running on empty due to sleep deprivation. “Reducing America’s Sleep Debt,” this month’s guest editorial by William Dement, MD, PhD, is a brilliant and insightful look at how Americans are literally robbing themselves of sleep. The impact this is having on their health and ability to function at full capacity during waking hours is why we need to begin paying back this debt. In today’s fast-paced and accelerating lifestyle, many people are bartering an adequate night’s sleep for the opportunity to participate in an increasing number of activities. What they fail to realize is that the time they think they are gaining by willingly sacrificing sleep, they will lose 10 times over due to physical ailments and lower productivity during their waking hours. As sleep professionals, it is imperative that you share with your patients, their family members, and other health care professionals the importance of getting an adequate amount of sleep on a regular basis.

The good news, as Dr Dement points out, is that lost sleep is one debt that each of us can pay back to some extent, regardless of our financial status, providing our sleep account is not too far overdrawn. Individuals suffering from sleep deprivation first need to be educated to understand that robbing themselves of sleep is a major crime, and then they need to be persuaded to reorient their lifestyle, placing sleep higher on their list of priorities. While each person needs a slightly different number of hours of sleep per night, the variance between individuals is not all that significant. Of even greater concern are the children and teenagers who are depriving themselves of a good night’s sleep. The demands being placed on many kids today between educational goals and physical and social activities are far greater than they were one or two generations ago. Without enough sleep, youngsters are less likely to perform at their highest ability and will not fully enjoy the years of their youth. Ask any parent how Johnnie or Susie is doing the day after staying up late the night before, and you are likely to get the same answer: “Bordering on miserable to intolerable.” Adults just happen to be craftier at disguising their fatigue.

One thing that sleep professionals can do to help patients who are consciously depriving themselves of sleep is to have the patients keep a list of their daily activities for 1 week. In addition, have them record how many real hours of sleep (from the time they fall asleep to the time that they wake up) they are getting each night. At the end of the week, sit down with the patient, review all of the activities, and grade each one with a 1, 2 or 3, with 1 being the most important and 3 the least important activity that they participated in during the week. Then speak with the patient about those activities that rated a 3 and how these activities could be reduced or eliminated. If they reinvested this newly available time in sleep, they would be getting enough sleep each night. The dividends that enough sleep will pay are well worth the investment. At the end of the day, you are apt to convince many patients that it is a wise decision to invest more time in sleep, and they will even discover that they really won’t be missing a thing—except for exhaustion.