Dr. Nitun Verma lives by night.
He works 9 to 5 as a doctor in California’s Silicon Valley, so he’s up early — usually tired and sleepy from not sleeping the previous night. As a night owl, Verma lives by the night, with his heart and mind racing with thoughts, ideas and energy as the world around him collapses into darkness. He's up late working online or thinking about the day ahead of him. He's had this problem since high school.
Verma is both a doctor and a patient for sleep loss, which is having a severe and sometimes fatal effect on people. A recent study by SLEEP, the official journal of the American Sleep Disorders Association, followed 1,741 men over a 10- to 14-year period and found those who slept fewer than six hours a day had a higher mortality risk.
The study showed 21 percent of men and 5 percent of women were at risk. And another SLEEP study of 15 men showed that one night of sleep deprivation was linked to signs of brain tissue loss. It’s even affecting the young, experts say. Sleep loss for young kids who have a disorder, like sleep apnea, means they are more likely to struggle in school and social circles.
With these possible effects creeping up with sleep deprivations, questions have risen about what people can do to find their Zs — and about the personal, day-to-day effects for a person on the street. Though people are losing sleep, and some may even be dying because of it, Verma said there are solutions for those with sleep issues.
“This is something that is a natural fix, which means you don’t need strong medications,” he said, “and that’s always a better way of treating things.”
What is a night owl?
Night owls, or those who stay up into the late hours of the night, have a decreased ability to multitask and think creatively, he said. Their minds move slower, their memories aren’t as sharp, and they have difficulty focusing for long periods of time, Verma said.
Verma will often ask patients if they would rather work on an important project at 6 a.m. or 10 p.m. The answer to that question, he said, tells him whether someone is a night owl or not.
“If you can fall asleep pretty easily at night, you’re less likely to be a night owl,” he said. “Being a night owl means you have difficulty sleeping at night, even if you’re sleeping at the right times.” Verma said the correct hours of sleep are during night hours, like from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., or 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.
Verma doesn’t think sleep deprivation will kill you directly. Losing hours of sleep will have an effect mentally that could cause mental issues down the road, though, he said.
Dr. Robin Haight, a clinical psychologist and president-elect of the American Psychological Association, said she often sees clients with insomnia and sleep deprivation who stay awake at those late hours.
“Sleep is often disrupted when there is a presence of anxiety of depression or other life transitions,” she said. “Big life transitions can become very preoccupying for people, and that starts to look like insomnia.”
Many of her clients with sleep disorders have other mental health concerns, too, but she is not aware of any direct correlation between sleep patterns and mental health issues, she said. Over time, people who are sleep deprived because of insomnia can find themselves with mental health issues.
“Not only are their bodies wearing down, but their internal emotional and mental resources are becoming depleted over time,” Haight said.
She said people who are sleep deprived stand out — less in a physical sense, but more in how they act mentally. They’re usually anxious, stressed or depressed, she said. Depression, anxiety and stress cause your brain to race rapidly and keep you awake at night, Haight said.
Both Verma and Haight said technology screens — like those from a television, computer, tablet or cellphone — also have an effect on night owls. Haight said the lights from TVs and tablets cut the natural amount of melatonin, which is the primary hormones that make people feel drowsy.
“Right up until you go to bed,” she said, “you’re not giving your body the chance to have the natural drowsy phase.”
Losing out on that phase, she said, could hurt your memory, functionality and ability to heal mental wounds.
Young night owls
Haight treats adolescents from time to time, and she’s seen sleep problems for them, too. Youth is a “time when lifelong habits are developing,” she said, so getting into a habit of poor self-care and poor hygiene “can be carried through into adulthood.”
Verma said night owls are fairly common among the youth as their bodies are wired differently and need different hours of sleep. The National Sleep Foundation published a report that said those ages 5 to 10 need 10 or 11 hours of sleep, while those ages 10 to 17 need between 8.5 and 9.25 hours of sleep.
“Being a night owl as a young person, like when you’re in elementary school, is quite common,” Verma said. “And that actually becomes much worse when they become a teenager.” Teenagers usually stay up late, searching the Web or chatting with friends, Verma said. But often, teens have to wake up earlier for school — forcing them to miss out on hours of sleep.
Sleep apnea, though, is a major cause for concern among the youth, Verma said. He said that those with sleep apnea have lower scores in schools even five or 10 years after they stopped having the sleep disorder.
The young night owls, Verma said, will also be affected mentally if they’re not grabbing the right hours of sleep. Sometimes they might be irritable and less attentive, she said.
Solutions for sleep
Jonathan Steele, a holistic nurse who has his own private practice in Scranton, Pa., works for Water Cures, a nonprofit organization that seeks to find medical cures through water-based methods.
One thing he has to do constantly is aid the ill to fall asleep. He’s tried to help his patients find ways to fall asleep. He suggests those with sleep issues try and move their eyes around the room and get their minds off the issues that are keeping them awake.
The NSF recommends those with sleep issues stick to the same bed time, practice a bed time ritual, avoid naps, exercise, redesign their room to fit their sleeping needs and avoid alcohol, cigarettes and heavy meals at night, among other tips.
Haight said the sleep deprived should set a routine for themselves and stick to it. Whenever they want to go to bed — whether it’s late or early in the night — they should follow that schedule and keep going to bed at that time.
Verma agreed that sticking to a schedule is important to avoiding negative effects of being a night owl. He recommends the night owls — or those who work late night work shifts or have sleep medical issues — get eight hours “at a goofy time” of the day, like from 4 a.m. to noon, and not adjust their schedule to fit the normal day and night hours. Getting eight hours — or at least as many hours of sleep your body needs to function — is important, he said.
“Everyone knows no one sleeps exactly the same amount of sleep,” he said, “just like no one eats the right amount of food.”
Haight suggests you keep your eyes away from the clock. Looking at the clock gets your mind racing by thinking of the time and how much longer you have until you need to wake up.
“It doesn’t help anything, and it can have negative effects,” she said. “That is just not information that’s going to do me any good. Might as well just go back to bed, try to relax and try to get some sleep.”
Haight said finding time to sleep is a basic self-care task, like eating food. If there’s something messed up with that, she said, then someone isn’t taking care of himself or herself on a fundamental level.
“Sleep is a fundamental, basic kind of self-care,” she said. “And if we don’t take care of ourselves in these basic ways, then taking care of yourself in more frivolous ways is kind of pointless.”
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