Americans can't seem to get enough sleep — and it's wreaking havoc on our brains

A celebration of "prolonged wakefulness" is terrible for our health, experts say

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published February 28, 2022 7:36PM (EST)

Sleepy nurse on duty sitting in dark room, exhausted by extra work in hospital (Getty Images/Motortion)
Sleepy nurse on duty sitting in dark room, exhausted by extra work in hospital (Getty Images/Motortion)

In American work culture, resisting sleep is often lauded as a heroic act. This antipathy towards sleep is evident in hard-working professionals plugging away at the office late into the night, or young people who cut loose by partying into the wee hours. The negative associations with sleep explain why a start-up CEO felt comfortable scolding employees as "weak" for needing sleep and why one of Donald Trump's favorite insulting nicknames for President Joe Biden is "Sleepy Joe."

Yet experts agree that this attitude towards sleep isn't merely unhealthy — it is also downright unscientific. Needing to sleep does not signify laziness, weakness or stupidity. Most adults need to spend one-third of their lives sleeping, and for children the duration is even longer. Just as it is important to eat when your body says it is hungry, it is vital to sleep when your body says it is tired.

RELATED: Americans are popping melatonin to get to sleep. Researchers say it may not be helping

"Sleep is really the foundation which the rest of our health depends on," Dr. Natalie Dautovich, Environmental Fellow at the National Sleep Foundation, told Salon by email. "What we know is that there is a cyclical relationship between sleep and overall health — adequate sleep contributes to overall mental health and physical well-being, but not having a good mental and physical health state can impact how well you sleep."

Dautovich said "most Americans today" are not getting the amount of sleep they would need in order to be optimally healthy. That is borne out by research: a 2016 study from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that one-third of American adults don't get enough sleep. A 2018 study agreed, noting that the numbers were higher for health care workers and police officers. 

A big part of the reason is cultural, explained Dr. Constance H. Fung, an Associate Clinical Professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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"Prolonged wakefulness is often championed by leaders, like they are deserving of accolades for not sleeping, whether it's because they were doing work or up late socializing or doing some recreational activity," Fung wrote to Salon. "Sleep is often regarded as a period of inactivity (wasting time), which reflects a poor understanding of the 'work' that's being done during the sleep period." Your immune system releases proteins called cytokines that help your body fight infections and inflammation. Your muscles and other organs use the opportunity to heal. Your brain not only heals, but sorts through its own log of information to find patterns and help you cognitively as you proceed with your day.

"The long-term risks of sleep deprivation are under-recognized and not included as a cost of achievement (e.g., students study or do activities such as sports/arts/music instead of sleeping and they earn good grades and achieve medals/honors, but the short and long-term negative impact on mental and physical health are not recognized.)," Fung wrote to Salon.

Dr. Marco Hafner, the RAND Europe senior research leader who helped pen a study called "Why sleep matters — the economic costs of insufficient sleep," shared a personal story about learning the importance of sleep after this reporter opened up about his own health crisis where his body needed to sleep (a concussion).

"I [became] interested in sleep ... through a personal experience, when I became a dad," which resulted in "severe sleep deprivation," Hafner told Salon by email. "It started to affect my work productivity and my physical and mental health." Hafner added that research shows your body clears out toxins when you sleep; for instance, when your brain is in deep sleep, a series of tubes called the glymphatic system removes waste-filled fluid from the brain.

Hafner also echoed Fung's observation about how our professional culture discourages sleep.

"Then there is also the research showing that exposure to blue light could have a negative effect on the body's natural levels of melatonin, and if a person is exposed to blue light just until bedtime it could delay the onset of tiredness," Hafner explained. Studies prove that light suppresses melatonin, the chemical released by the pineal gland that regulates humans' sleep-wake cycle — also known as our Circadian rhythm. The Circadian rhythm is a sort of biological clock in the brain, which "regulates the timing of things in your body like when you want to sleep or eat," Dautovich told Salon. "A disrupted circadian rhythm can occur either due to an internal malfunction or a mismatch between your body clock and external factors like social or work environment."

Exposure to light during nighttime is also linked to health issues like diabetes and obesity. "So in our culture where many people have smartphones, tablets, and other gadgets in their bedrooms, this could have a detrimental impact on a person's sleep hygiene." He also said that lack of exercise and poor diet also negatively impact people's sleep cycles.

If you think your sleep hygiene is off, there are ways you can try to fix that.

"Start with some lifestyle changes, such as establishing a regular bedtime and reducing your caffeine intake later in the day so it doesn't interfere with nighttime sleep," Dautovich explained. "You might also benefit from creating a calm, relaxing sleep environment and eliminating distractions such as TV or texting on your phone before bed. Some elements to consider for improving sleep include creating a sleep-friendly bedroom including a cool, dark, quiet room with a comfortable mattress to help your sleep well."

It is also important to establish that your bed is a domain strictly intended for sleep.

"Reserve the bed and bedroom for sleep if possible. If you find yourself lying awake at night, go to another room until you're sleepy and then return to bed," Dautovich added.

If you're interested in the science of sleep, check out these other articles.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Brain Science Concussion Health Reporting Sleep Sleep Science