A few months back, there was a story in the Wall Street Journal about the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry. Only it wasn’t about basketball, per se. It was about how the point guard’s remarkable performance this season has caused an East Coast phenomenon known as “Curry insomnia.” As the article explained, those of us in the Eastern time zone tend to fall asleep between 11:30 p.m. and midnight. Half the Warriors’ games don’t even start till 10:30. NBA fans are sacrificing sleep to catch the Curry excitement — and paying for it the next day.
This isn’t the first time sports have cost Americans sleep. Remember how Monday Night Football games used to begin at nine o’clock? Now they kick off at 8:30. Why the change? “They moved it a half hour earlier because the country was losing money,” says Eric Sztejman, a board-certified sleep specialist with Virtua Health. “It was bright and exciting, and everybody was staying up too late to watch it. It was affecting the economy.”
Maybe it’s not sports for you. Maybe it’s the temptation to watch a whole season of The Walking Dead at once. Or lying in bed and fretting over how to pay for your kid’s college. Or that caramel mocha venti latte you had after supper, or answering emails from your boss, or checking out Tinder or the latest version of Mortal Kombat. We all have our excuses, but the fact is, we’re sleeping an hour to an hour and a half less per night than our great-grandparents did, according to Les Szekely, a sleep specialist at Doylestown Hospital. “Now we have electric lights, and all this electronic distraction,” says Szekely. “We’ve pushed the envelope as far as we can.” Life today is crammed with a vast menu of bright, sparkly, fun diversions. And you know what those diversions are doing? They’re making you fat.
Really. Talk to local sleep doctors and researchers, as we did for this package, and you’ll come away convinced that America’s obesity problem can’t be blamed on soda (sorry, Mayor Kenney) or soft pretzels or even the Quesalupa — at least, not directly. When you don’t get enough sleep, your willpower erodes, explains Sigrid Veasey, of Penn’s Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology. That makes it harder to resist Taco Bell. But even worse, lack of sleep triggers hormonal changes that make you crave sugar and fat and carbs instead of healthy foods. “It’s chemical,” Veasey says of our societal longing for cronuts and Big Macs.
What makes lack of sleep insidious is that it won’t kill you tomorrow. “It’s like eating, or smoking,” says David Dinges, chief of the division of sleep and chronobiology at Penn Med. “No one gets obese from one cheeseburger. No one gets lung cancer from one cigarette. The effects are cumulative.” Shorting ourselves on sleep night after night adds up. And too much weight is just the tip of the iceberg. Science has correlated insufficient sleep with all sorts of health woes, from heart disease to depression to cancer to stroke to the permanent loss of brain cells, not to mention thousands of traffic accidents a year. And our children, with high-def TVs and iPads in their bedrooms and iPhones in their pockets? While grown-ups manifest lack of sleep by getting, well, sleepy, kids get wild and belligerent and loud. In fact, says Veasey, they exhibit all the symptoms of that other epidemic of modern life, ADHD.
Unconvinced? Listen to this. Dominic Valentino, a sleep medicine and critical care doctor with Mercy Health, designed a little experiment to study the effects of sleep on patients in the ICU. His wild idea: to let them snooze without having nurses pop in constantly to check their vital signs. “When I first proposed it,” he says, “the nurses were taken aback. They were used to being in the room with the patients.” But when those patients were monitored remotely from the nurses’ station and allowed to sleep undisturbed from midnight to 4:30 a.m., their stays in the ICU were cut by an average of 4.4 days. And they averaged about two fewer days of delirium as measured by the Confusion Assessment Method for the ICU, which monitors level of alertness, ability to focus, ability to follow and repeat directions and the like. The results were so startling that Mercy Health implemented the protocol in all its hospitals.
That’s the power of sleep.
In America, we’re used to wearing our lack of sleep as a badge of pride — a holdover from our Puritan past, when inactivity equaled laziness. Wall Street moguls boast of getting by on just four hours of shut-eye. Meantime, pro athletes and reality stars and pop singers tweet and Instagram evidence of their all-night debauchery. Staying up late feels deliciously naughty, even if you’re only watching one more episode of Law & Order. But the experts we spoke with say that’s starting to change as research reveals more of the dangers of cutting slumber short.
“It’s becoming a lifestyle matter,” says Dinges. “We’re prioritizing it. More scientists are interested in it. The U.S. government has panels on nutrition and exercise. We need to have sleep as the third component of the triad.”
Incidentally, hardly any of the doctors we spoke with started out to practice sleep medicine. What attracted them to it, they say, was the dramatic — the downright miraculous — difference they saw proper sleep make. “You can fix people,” says Joanne Getsy, medical director of the Drexel Sleep Center. “It’s not just giving them a little more time or making them a little bit better. You can fix them!”
Whether what’s keeping you awake is a fussy baby, a jammed-up schedule, a spouse who snores or the lonely misery of insomnia, this guide is full of ways for you to get fixed.
The Ultimate Sleep F.A.Q. for Exhausted Philadelphians
The bad news: You’re exhausted. The good news: We can help. Philly’s top experts tell us the secrets to a great night’s sleep.
Part 1: Sleep Basics
Such as: Why do I need to sleep? And how little sleep can I get away with? Surprising answers to these questions and more.
Part 2: The Scientific Case for Napping at Work
And how to (finally!) become a morning person.
Part 3: How to Help Your Kid Become a Champion Sleeper
Our exhaustive guide for exhausted parents on kids and sleep.
Part 4: Your Wearable Sleep Tracker May Be Wrecking Your Sleep
And have you ever wondered about the best position for sleep? What about whether fancy beds are worth the money? We’ve got all that and more.
Part 5: The Truth About Prescription Sleeping Pills
Plus, which over-the-counter meds you should (and shouldn’t) reach for, and everything you need to know about natural sleep supplements.
Part 6: 10 Common Sleep Myths Put to Bed — Once and For All
It’s time you knew the truth: Everything you think you know about sleep is wrong.