Most people do not get enough sleep. The average person worldwide gets 6.8 hours of rest, which is not nearly the healthy eight hours most people require to function. Approximately 100 million Americans, or 30% of the population, are thought to suffer from sleep disorders at present. These conditions prevent people from being able to think clearly, as sleep directly determines our brain’s ability to function, especially learning and creating memories. Investigating the prevalence of sleep disruption is important for this reason, as it is a direct indicator of the ability of a population to think and function optimally.
Sleep disorders can take many forms. The most common is insomnia, symptoms of which are observable in one in three adults. This illness prevents falling or staying asleep, resulting in frustrating and chronic daytime exhaustion. Sleep apnea is similarly common, and results from breathing issues during sleep. Narcolepsy and idiopathic hypersomnia are issues of brain functioning, with chemicals necessary for typical sleep regulation being in a state of imbalance. Sufferers may fall asleep mid-sentence or spontaneously need to lie down to rest.
Lack of sleep does not constitute a sleep disorder. Sleep deprivation is a direct contributor to a host of health problems, including depression, anxiety, hypertension, heart disease, obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Sleep disorders commonly cause these symptoms because they can prevent healthy sleep. However, just as sleep disorders can cause sleep deprivation, a chronic lack of rest may contribute to the development of more serious sleep conditions.
While many disorders have a genetic factor to their development, lifestyle is also a key contributor. Insomnia can be caused by stress and rumination inhibiting sleep until it eventually balloons into a persistent disorder. This can be from a major event or a long-term state of overwork. It is less well-known that narcolepsy can be triggered by similar circumstances, and, through ongoing research, it is becoming increasingly thought of as an autoimmune disorder, in which the brain attacks cells vital for sleep regulation. This has caused many doctors to believe that the gene associated with narcolepsy predisposition could be triggered similarly to other autoimmune disorders: through stress, illness or hormonal changes. Furthermore, even the development of sleep apnea may stem from prior issues with rest. While there is a strong genetic component, apnea is more common in people with obesity and heart conditions, both of which can result from sleep deprivation.
Clearly, our current lifestyle is a contributor to the rise of sleep disorders. Getting good sleep is not emphasized as a crucial factor in public health nearly as much as eating well and getting exercise. Common facets of our daily lives such as irregular schedules, caffeine, blue light from computer screens and electric lighting help to convince our brains that it is always daytime and disrupt our circadian rhythms. Culture surrounding efficiency and productivity leaves little accommodation for rest.
Workers today are rewarded for taking long hours and pushing themselves beyond what is reasonable to ask of any individual human being. Chronic stress is normalized to an almost comical degree, with most Americans suffering from stress that impairs daily functioning. Money, work and the economy are the top three causes of stress cited by adults, all of which must be juggled under an unforgiving capitalist system that increasingly punishes ordinary citizens. People feel disenfranchised by their jobs and housing, which causes an avalanche of mental health issues and live on razor-thin wages, rendering unexpected life events or costs an irreparable financial trauma to struggling individuals or families. This normalization of stress and the often traumatic societal conditions that accompany it produces a perfect breeding ground for sleep deprivation and subsequent disorders.
The treatment for many disorders emphasizes good sleep hygiene and addressing psychological factors such as anxiety. However, our social focus on efficiency over individual well-being makes it exceedingly difficult for people with sleep disorders to do what is necessary to tend to their overall health. A feedback loop can develop in which stress or illness contribute to sleep issues, which evolve into more severe sleep disorders, impair daily functioning and subsequently cause more stress and sleep deprivation as we rush to meet impossible demands. The system we live under does not easily accommodate the rest and rehabilitation necessary to break the cycle and prevent worse outcomes.
In the wake of the pandemic, it is especially important to address sleep dysfunction. Sleep disorders had already been declared an epidemic prior to COVID-19 — now, complaints of nocturnal issues are rising dramatically as two in three Americans now report sleeping more or less than desired. Lockdown upended peoples’ circadian rhythms by disrupting routines, as those working from home could stay up later and develop disjointed schedules. Lack of in-person social interaction may have also been a psychological contributor to sleep deprivation.
More importantly, long COVID-19 is known to be a contributor to sleep issues, with 40% of those afflicted reporting disturbances. A small study has revealed that long COVID-19 patients appear to experience diminished deep sleep, light sleep and sleep time. Many also present symptoms of insomnia. This suggests the virus may cause persistent, atypical sleep patterns and disorders. Researchers have also connected the swine flu epidemic of 2009 to a subsequent rise in narcolepsy diagnosis, and project a similar possibility for COVID-19.
There is no conceivable reason that we should be suffering from an epidemic of exhaustion. Sleep disorders are a byproduct of a sick society — a “check engine” light for a culture that cares little for the health of its people and the stress that affects them daily. Eventually, we will be unable to sustain ourselves as we continue to run an ailing economic machine on the backs of a overworked and exhausted population.