Is it really something to worry about? Experts say yes.

We can blame it on the time change, the sick baby or the lure of late-night television, but the truth is we’re tired. A lot. As a nation, we’re tired enough for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to call our sleep deprivation a public health epidemic.

“Although sleep is often seen as just a break from the day’s activities, it is necessary for one’s overall mental and physical well-being,” says Jeanne Chretien, CRT, RST, RPSGT, lead sleep technologist for the Sleep Center at Kent Hospital.

“Sleep is an active state during which vital body functions occur—hormones for growth and development are secreted, and memories are consolidated. Poor quality sleep affects these functions and can compound many health issues, such as obesity and insulin resistance,” adds F. Dennis McCool, MD, director of the Sleep Center at Memorial Hospital.

What can sleep deprivation lead to?

  • Memory problems.
  • Mood changes.
  • Inability to concentrate.
  • Aggressive behaviors.
  • Increased risk of motor vehicle accidents and work-related injuries.

The Academy of Sleep Medicine also reports that research shows people with insomnia are ten times more likely to be depressed than those who sleep well.

“Sleep problems are a common symptom of most mental illnesses—depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety and ADHD. In turn, poor sleep can also exacerbate symptoms of mental illness,” explains Susan Higgins, MA, OTR/L, an occupational therapist with the Partial Hospital Program at Butler Hospital.

So What’s the Problem?

Many things can stand between you and your zzz’s. Chretien says sleep can be disturbed by:

  • Environmental factors, such as light and noise.
  • Shift work.
  • Today’s 24/7 society.
  • Stress and depression.

There are also medical conditions that can keep you awake nights, says Dr. McCool. These can include:

  • Pain.
  • Gastric reflux.
  • Hormonal change.s
  • Breathing disorders such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) and sleep apneas.
  • Medication for these and other conditions.

Adults should get seven to nine hours of sleep per night, although the specific amount varies from one person to another. But, you can be in bed, even think you’re getting rest, for eight or more hours and still wake up feeling exhausted. That’s when you need to consider the “quantity” versus “quality” of your sleep. In addition to a certain amount of time spent sleeping, we need to make sure the sleep is uninterrupted and of good quality most nights.

“Sleep deprivation has a compounding effect resulting in ‘sleep debt,’” Chretien says. “Sleep debt is similar to credit card debt in that it does not take long to accumulate, but takes time for the debt to be repaid.”

“Sleep debt cannot be eliminated with one good night’s sleep.”

What Can Be Done?

Experts from Butler Hospital’s Partial Hospital Program teach patients effective self-help techniques for sleeplessness. If you cannot seem to get a good night’s sleep even without external conditions like the neighbor’s barking dog plaguing you, then you may need to get to the cause of your sleep disruption by visiting a sleep specialist.

Sleep Specialists

“Sometimes, things like the loss of a loved one or an acute illness can cause temporary insomnia, which is the difficulty falling and staying asleep,” Dr. McCool says. “But, if you suffer from poor quality sleep for a month or more, and the daytime sleepiness is interfering with your daily routine, a sleep specialist can help.”

You may be asked to spend the night in a Sleep Center where your sleep will be monitored to isolate specific sleep disorders and determine a treatment plan. More and more, centers are also using portable equipment that you can bring home and use to conduct the test in your own bed.

Treatment options are based on your diagnosis, but they can include recommended use of oral appliances or a CPAP machine, medication, and/or behavioral modifications and environmental changes.