There are three pillars to maintaining physical health: diet; exercise; sleep. Of the three, sleep is the most neglected.

Every night, one-third of the adults in the United States don’t get enough sleep. If the consequences were felt immediately — like a lack of water, oxygen, or food — this would be a crisis on the top of everyone’s list.

It’s not, so it isn’t.

It’s called the National Sleep Debt.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this chronic sleep shortfall causes:

  • increased reaction times leading to accidents. Tiredness is the same as driving drunk when it comes to effects.
  • impairment in thinking and learning. A lack of sleep dumbs a person down making them forgetful.
  • an increase in cardiovascular problems and diabetes.
  • difficulty in keeping a healthy weight.
  • an effect to the natural secretion of certain hormones leading to other bodily malfunctions.
  • depression.
  • premature aging.
  • an increase in the chance of premature death.

Studies suggest there are a lot of very sleepy people out there.

Sleep and the individual

In an individual, a chronic lack of sleep becomes a pervasive problem. Often though it’s not the kind of problem that hits you right between the eyes. Long-term sleep deprivation is a bit insidious. It tends to mess up lots of things, screwing them up to a degree that ranges from a little bit to a moderate amount.

Unless, of course, sleep deprivation involves nodding off while driving or piloting a motor vehicle and crashing. When that happens the consequences are catastrophic.

Incredibly, the chronic lack of sleep also affects the individual’s judgment about sleep itself. It affects the ability to make decisions. Studies show when an individual gets used to the idea of getting less-than-enough sleep, they stop noticing the sleep deficit.

The CDC survey numbers suggest a crisis of epidemic proportions. The most infamous epidemic, the bubonic plague, killed off between 30 and 60 percent of the people in Europe in the 14th century. The National Sleep Deficit affects more people, however. More people are alive today. If this were a sensationalist blog, we should probably title this entry “TODAY’S SLEEP CRISIS — WORSE THAN THE PLAGUE!!!”

What Can We Do About the National Sleep Debt

It doesn’t do any good to wring our hands. It doesn’t help to piously proclaim people are bad because they’re shortchanging themselves on sleep. We’re all guilty of this from time to time. Life happens. It’s easy to get distracted and not want to bother with going to bed. Shift workers are commonly affected but somebody has to work those shifts.

People individually need to adopt strategies to see that they get the amount that they need. You’re supposed to wake up feeling refreshed, raring to go every morning. This blog is dedicated to giving each individual the tools they need to help themselves and their family and friends. These tools start with mindset.

And we realize that everyone prefers simple solutions. Take a pill, go to sleep. Internet discussion boards are full of people asking what kind of combination of natural supplements can they take to help them get some sleep.

That seems simple. It isn’t. Sleeping pills and other concoctions aren’t a long-term answer. Pills have side effects and sometimes stop working. Further, they’re habit forming. What’s worse is seeing what happens when somebody doesn’t make the lifestyle changes necessary to allow themselves enough time to sleep and takes a sleeping pill. They’re even more impaired than they were before; more dangerous to themselves and others.

Sleeping pills can be useful but not for the long term. Lifestyle changes should always lead the way. Sleep health and knowledge is a skill like other things. Strangely enough, these lifestyle changes haven’t been studied to the level they should. There are signs that’s changing, however, like with the five-year study the National Institute of Nursing Research is funding at the University of Buffalo in insomnia in cancer survivors.

Starting in December 2018, UB is trying a therapy called Brief Behavioral Treatment for Insomnia. It’s a nurse-guided, non-pharmacological intervention. Then they’re following it up for long-term results at monthly intervals.

The scientists study interventions like strengthening the mental association between the bedroom and sleep; spending less time in bed; controlling for factors like temperature, nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol. In our own lives, we can take matters into our own hands. We can observe the effects of journaling our dreams, brainwave entrainment, meditation, self-hypnosis and relaxation techniques. A healthy lifestyle includes eating right, getting enough exercise and rest. There’s a lot of ways to eat right and exercise; sleeping is no exception. There’s no one single solution for each person.

If you give yourself many reasons to adopt a healthy habit, keeping the habit become much easier. One way to adopt healthy sleep habits is to keep a dream journal. Dreaming is part of sleep. Adopting techniques to allow yourself to chart and record your dreams allows yourself to sleep better and make contact with your subconscious.

We take a do-it-yourself approach to health maintenance and maximization. We’re interested in the spiritual aspects to a loss of sleep too. We’re interested in self-help. You, after all, know yourself the best. As with eating right and getting enough exercise, you’ve ultimately got to do the work yourself anyway. As with exercise, whether you’re working out in a tony, high-priced gym or doing push-ups on the floor at home, you end up doing the work yourself. Do-it-yourself should always be your first step.

James Cobb, RN, MSN

A former newspaper reporter for the Savannah (Ga.) News-Press and other daily newspapers, James P. Cobb has been an emergency department nurse since 2003, primarily working nights. He’s also the author of several science-fiction/ western novels and “Become Healthier With Your Smartphone.”

Needless to say, when it comes to sleep, Americans and others aren’t making themselves healthier with their smartphone usage at bedtime.

Resources for further reading