In addition to food, water, and air, sleep is the one thing we truly can't live without. But experts say more and more women are falling short on shut-eye, and staring at the ceiling all night isn't just frustrating--it can also be life threatening. Studies show that one in six fatal car accidents are caused by sleep-deprived drivers, and according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), the 40 million Americans who now suffer from sleep disorders are at higher risk for a slew of serious health issues. Here, what's behind the insomnia epidemic, plus fast-acting solutions for getting quality sleep.
The Vitamin Z Deficiency
A growing number of nocturnal ailments are robbing women of critical slumber. To date, there are about 90 official sleep disorders, the three most common being insomnia, restless leg syndrome, and sleep apnea, a potentially life-threatening disorder in which people stop breathing during sleep, says Philip Westbrook, M.D., former president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
New research has shed light on why sleep problems are skyrocketing. As with many health issues, stress is to blame. "Thanks to the economy, there's been a big increase in stress, especially in women," says Alan Lankford, Ph.D., president and CEO of the Sleep Disorders Center of Georgia. "And stress can have a huge impact on falling and staying asleep." When you're mentally keyed up at night, your body pumps out the stress hormone cortisol, which acts like an adrenaline shot that prevents snoozing.
Also contributing to sleepless nights is a genuinely modern double threat: overactive minds and underactive bodies. Thanks to our coffee culture, people tend to suck down jolts of energy well into the afternoon. "Any kind of caffeine, even the small amounts in hot chocolate and candy bars, can impair your sleep if ingested after 2 p.m.," says James Maas, Ph.D., coauthor of Sleep for Success! Everything You Must Know About Sleep but Are Too Tired to Ask.
Artificial blue light from a television or computer is another powerful mental stimulant that blocks production of the sleep hormone melatonin. So fiddling with your iPad or watching Conan within an hour of bedtime signals your brain to stay alert--and awake. This might not be such a big deal if we got off our butts more often. "Women evolved to be physically active from morning to night," says Westbrook.
"But today's desk-bound woman, even one who regularly hits the gym, still doesn't get the exercise her body was built for, and ample exercise is crucial for good sleep."
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A Wake-Up Call for Your Health
A solid third of your life should be spent in slumber, and not just so you can recover from those happy hours gone wild. Sleep is critical for overall health, says Maas, "and people are starting to realize it's a necessity, not a luxury." As you snooze, your body repairs errant cells, builds bone and muscle, consolidates memories, and stores up energy for the days, weeks, and years ahead. Sleep is so important, in fact, that some doctors consider how much you get to be a vital sign, on par with body temperature and blood pressure, says Lankford.