The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No, you’re not sleeping enough, and it’s a problem: 15 scary facts in new NatGeo doc

A new documentary by National Geographic illustrates the perils of sleep deprivation. (Video: National Geographic TV)
Placeholder while article actions load

You just enjoyed a long Thanksgiving weekend, so presumably you’re fairly well-rested, right? If not, prepare to be scared by some facts unleashed in a new National Geographic Channel documentary.

The two-hour “Sleepless in America,” a collaboration by NatGeo, National Institutes of Health and The Public Good Projects, debuted on Sunday night. The gist: Everyone is tired. No one gets enough sleep. And then this: Chronic sleep deprivation could have irreparable damage to your health.

NatGeo airs many documentaries, but with this one, they combined a timeless issue with a very timely topic: A lack of sleep hits close to home for pretty much everyone these days. “Sleep right now is one of those conversations that’s long overdue,” Army Surgeon General Patricia Horoho says in the film. “But it’s getting the national attention that it needs.”

It was a riveting two hours — no, really! — packed with anecdotes and interviews with experts who urge the need for change and more scientific research to help an increasingly sleepless culture. If you missed it (“Sleepless” airs again Dec. 7 at 9 a.m.), here are some of the facts that make us want to start going to bed very early every night:

1) Although there is debate about the magic number of sleeping hours, experts here recommend a solid eight. That said, 40 percent of American adults are sleep-deprived; the average American sleeps less than seven hours per night during the week. Meanwhile, 70 percent of adolescents also fall behind the recommended amount.

2) Lack of sleep is a serious problem in our constantly moving, 24/7 society: People are getting thousands of hours less sleep than they once were. As the documentary puts it, sleep is being “decimated” by our overstimulated culture with so much technology and gadgetry that distracts everyone all the time. Plus, people are overworked, so they no longer have enough time to do the things they want during the week. As a result, they stay up even later on weekends so they can compensate.

3) Sleep is “just as important as good nutrition, physical activity and wearing your seatbelt” — but many people greatly underestimate their need for it.

4) This quote from Mark Rosekind, member of the National Transportation Safety Board: “Every aspect of who you are as a human, every capability is degraded, impaired, when you lose sleep. What does that mean? Your decision-making, reaction time, situational awareness, memory, communication, and those things go down by 20 to 50 percent.”

5) When sleep gets shorter than seven hours a night, there’s evidence that there’s an increased risk for obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even Alzheimer’s disease. The film also interviewed David Gozal at University of Chicago, a doctor who conducted a study linking an increased risk for cancer to lack of sleep.

6) An NIH study reduced subjects’ sleep to four hours a night and saw the impact on their weight. Turns out, sleeplessness increases an appetite for fatty foods, and the study showed that “short sleepers” consume 500 more calories a day than people who get enough sleep.

7) Almost all mental illnesses have associated sleep problems, experts say. In fact, sleep deprivation is nearly universal in every psychiatric condition, from bipolar disorder to anxiety disorders.

8) When you sleep, the brain clears out toxic chemicals — and one of the proteins that accumulates in the brain while you’re awake is associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Jeffrey Iliff, a doctor at Oregon Health and Science University, talks about his research into the link between poor sleep, clear thinking and Alzheimer’s.

9) Many factors are out of our control when it comes to sleep, particularly due to long hours at work or the type of job you have. The documentary looked in particular at health problems in shift workers required to work overnight, as it becomes much more difficult to manage blood sugar with those hours.

10) Another issue is people who operate machinery in late hours. “People that try and operate (driving their car, flying an airplane, running a train) during the night — they basically have to overcome physiological programming in their brain that says you’re supposed to be asleep,” Rosekind said.

11) The top cause of high-severity crashes on the road is fatigue.

12) There’s a term known as “microsleep,” defined as “momentary bouts of sleep that occur involuntary and can last up to 5 or 10 seconds.” It could occur at any time and have fatal consequences; the film profiled a man who lost his wife and two of his children after they were hit by a sleep-deprived driver.

13) Adolescents are biologically programmed to stay up later and wake up later, yet high schools force their students to wake up absurdly early. There’s a battle going on in high schools about later start times. The documentary featured one fight at Fairfax County Schools, where school starts at 7:20 a.m.

14) Studies show that high school school students who sleep more have higher test scores and lower rates of depression; the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends high schools should start at 8:30 a.m. or later. (An update since the documentary was produced: Fairfax County Public Schools approved a change, and high school will start between 8 and 8:10 a.m. beginning in Fall 2015.)

15) One of the most frightening facts was all the benefits that we’re missing out on if we stay up too late every night. The good news is that sleep can “inspire creativity, re-balance emotions, help refresh cardiovascular health, metabolic health and boost our immune system.” We just have to figure out how to get it.