Sleepless Nights and Groggy Days around the Bay

 Vol. 10, No. 13

March 28 - April 3, 2002

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What with night-owl babes, shifting work schedules and pre-dawn school bells, it’s getting harder to get a good night’s sleep around here.
story by April Falcon Doss
illustrations by Jim Hunt

"God bless the man who first invented sleep!’ So Sancho Panza said, and so say I."
—John Godfrey Saxe, 1816–1887

It’s 6:31am on a damp spring morning, and I’m loitering at a bus stop in Glen Burnie, waiting for sleepy high school students to appear. My neighbor’s van tears past me at a speed that declares as clearly as any sign, ‘I’m late for work!’ Van after truck after car after SUV proceeds down our neighborhood’s main street in the same way: drivers with coffee cup in hand, hairstill damp, windows still fogged from defrosters that haven’t warmed up yet and always that same intent, tight-lipped expression: ‘I gotta get to work on time!’

We’re on the verge of National Sleep Awareness Week, and I’m keenly aware of how much sleep I need. As I fumbled through the steps of assembling my morning coffee, I reached into the refrigerator, pulled out a jug and very nearly poured orange juice into my caffeine. I shrug. The everyday consequences of another sleepless night in a house with young children.

I suspect that I’m not the only person around the Bay who’s feeling the effects of too little sleep. So I’ve conducted a very non-scientific survey of some of the people who I suspect should be among the sleepiest.

Sleep, that deplorable curtailment of the joy of life.
—Virginia Woolf, 1882-1941

By 6:34am, two Northeast High School students have arrived at the bus stop, Rob Cherry and Sean Campbell. Both are dressed in baggy

T-shirts and jeans; Rob wears a knit hat to ward off the cold. Both look more alert than I feel.

The school bell for first period will ring at 7:17am. How do these teenagers manage the schedule?

“I get up at 6am,” says Cherry. For Campbell, wake-up time is 5:40.

While we talk, more high school students arrive — some groggy, bleary, grumpy, disheveled. Both Cherry and Campbell go to bed around 8:30 each night. “It’s the only way I can get enough sleep,” Cherry says.

Both seem remarkably matter-of-fact about their schedules. Both are also unusual: Studies have shown that most teenagers don’t go to sleep until between 11pm and midnight.

“It’s not so bad once you get used to it,” Cherry said.

“Yeah,” Campbell agreed.

So what’s the problem?

Even the early bedtimes may not give high schoolers the sleep they need.

“I’m pretty awake in the morning,” says Campbell, “but later in the day I get really tired.”

Cherry smiled a bit sheepishly. “I still sleep in school. I always nod off in class.”

Campbell nods in agreement. “I just try to prop my head up on my hands” to stay awake, he says.

The drowsiness reported by Campbell and Cherry is far from unique: a National Sleep Foundation survey found that 60 percent of children feel sleepy during the day, and 23 percent of teenagers fall asleep in school.

What’s the matter with these kids, anyway? Can’t they get to school on time and stay alert all day? Are they just lazy?

All of the latest sleep research says no. The problem isn’t the teenagers, say researchers, but the schedules imposed on them. Most public high schools start between 7:15 and 7:40am. Yet researchers say that the natural body clock, or circadian rhythm, of a teenager is set for a much later day: a day that ideally includes nine hours of sleep and that ends around 11pm, when most teens finally feel ready to wind down. A school day whose start demands that students wake up at 5:30 or 6am puts too much of a squeeze on the students’ health, mental acuity, mood and performance, researchers say.

Those suspicions were confirmed beginning in 1997 when the Minneapolis school district shifted its high schools’ start times from 7:15 to 8:40am. The result, five years later: Students attend classes more regularly and sleep an hour longer. Teachers report that students are more engaged and are showing better comprehension of the material they’re being taught. Some schools are reporting fewer disciplinary problems.

Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from California, was so impressed by the recent sleep findings that she introduced legislation called the Zzzz’s to A’s Bill, which would provide federal funds to offset the administrative and operating costs incurred by school districts that shift their schedules so that high schools can start after 9am.

Why, then, doesn’t every district ring the high school bell at 9am?

Retailers and restaurants fear they’d lose their teenage work staff. Sports teams dread the shift in practice and game schedules. School districts complain that they can’t shift high school start times without also changing the schedule for elementary and middle schools, since all the schools are typically served by a single fleet of buses. And some people just don’t believe that sleep deprivation is such a terrible thing.

Six hours for a man, seven for a woman, and eight for a fool.
-18th century English proverb

Groggy teenagers are only the tip of the sleep-deprivation iceberg. A century ago, we used to get nine hours of sleep each night. These days, Americans average slightly less than seven, and one-third sleep fewer than six and one-half hours a night during the week.
Blame Thomas Edison: He abhorred sleep as an excess of lazy souls and developed the electric light bulb specifically to increase our ability to stay awake and productive once night fell. He succeeded perhaps even beyond his own dreams: Society today functions 24/7, and we’re all paying the price.

According to Stanley Coren, a neuropsychologist and author of the book Sleep Thieves, each year sleep-related errors and accidents cost the United States over $56 billion, cause nearly 25,000 deaths, and result in over 2.5 million disabling injuries. Put more qualitatively, he says, cheating on our sleep can leave us “clumsy, stupid, unhappy and dead.”

To be more specific, the difficulty with our high-tech schedules is the massive sleep debt we accumulate. We’ve lost 500 hours of sleep per year compared to what our great-grandparents got. Yet our biological need for sleep hasn’t changed; Sleep researchers contend that human beings still need nine to 10 hours of sleep per day for optimal performance. (If that sounds like a lot, try this: Sleep for nine hours tonight, and see if you don’t feel better.)

And sleep loss is cumulative: if we lose just one hour of sleep each night —sleeping for seven hours, say, instead of eight — then by week’s end we’ve accumulated a sleep debt of seven hours. That’s almost the equivalent of losing a full night’s sleep. That week-long loss is enough, Coren says, for us to show the same symptoms as someone who’s lost a full night’s sleep all at once. By week’s end, we suffer from itching or burning eyes, blurred vision, chills. Fighting off waves of fatigue, we crave foods high in fat and carbohydrates. We feel tired, lethargic, apathetic. Our sense of humor is gone, we don’t want to socialize and we don’t look forward to activities, including recreational ones, we regularly enjoy. And, of course, we’re liable to get downright cranky.

We also don’t think very well. Mental processes get slower: Losing just four hours of sleep can cut reaction time by 45 percent. Plus, Coren says, sleep-deprived people tend to lose their motivation, feeling overwhelmed and indecisive. “You just don’t care much about the job you are doing. You feel that you can’t be bothered with details, so you don’t double-check your work, regardless of how important it might be.”

Sleep deprivation shortens your attention span, impairs your ability to commit information to long-term memory and interferes with logical reasoning. Rote and familiar tasks are still manageable, but anything involving creative approaches or novel thinking will be extraordinarily difficult.

Oh sleep! it is a gentle thing,
Beloved from pole to pole.
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1772-1834

The problem isn’t confined to teenagers, or even to devotees of late-night television. Consider the case of Adria Erwin, a college student who waits tables at Annapolis restaurants Tsunami and 49 West. She works two days and three nights each week. The night shifts begin at 5pm, and if she stays “till close,” it’s 3 or 4am when she walks out the door. In between work, she attends daytime classes at UMBC — no morning classes, thanks to her work schedule — does homework and adjusts on a daily basis to a life with no regular sleep routine.

“Last Sunday, I worked until 4am, got to bed at 5 and woke up at noon. I was so wiped out, I showered, went back to bed, and only woke up in time to go back to work that night.”

To cope with the schedule, “I drink a lot of caffeine,” she says, laughing, “lots of Red Bull, lots of coffee.”

Erwin, now 24, has been waiting tables since she was 15. She loves the interaction with people and she’s particularly fond of the atmosphere where she works now.

But she hates the late hours.

“I hate working until 3am,” she says. “It’s really hard to get things done during the day, like going to the post office. And if I get up at noon, it feels really early and I feel like hell. Getting up at 9:30 or 10am would be like getting up at 3am for you.

“It makes getting stuff done more difficult because I just don’t care. It’s hard to concentrate. Sometimes when I have to study, I read one page and can’t remember a thing. I take a lot of naps, even for just five or 10 minutes. Sometimes I even nap for 20 minutes on one of the sofas at school and set the alarm on my cell phone to wake me up.”

Erwin’s work schedule has dictated the rest of her life: “I stay up until 2 or 3am every night,” she says, “because it’s just what my body has gotten used to. It’s the worst possible schedule for my boyfriend and me.” He works a day job Monday through Friday.

Even safety suffers: “I’ve fallen asleep driving tons of times,” she says. “The rumble strips would wake me up. And one time I crashed my car. I must’ve looked like I was drunk or something, swerving all over the road.”

But Erwin can earn five or six times as much money in tips in the evening than during a day shift. So she’s liable to keep this schedule up for a while.

Plough deep while sluggards sleep.
—Maxim from Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1757

With mail-order gourmet coffee beans and drive-through espresso kiosks, it’s easier than ever to stay awake.

As I research this article, I pull my sweatshirt closer around me. I can’t seem to get warm today, and the Diet Coke I’m drinking isn’t cutting through the thick fuzz in my head. I find myself instinctively reaching for my four basic food groups for sleep-deprived days: salt, sugar, fat and caffeine: The perfect, most complete food source might well be the chocolate-covered pretzel.

As I reach for another brownie, I learn that dark chocolate contains more caffeine than milk chocolate; that white chocolate contains almost none; and that chocolate also contains a second stimulant, theobromine, which gives my favorite confection its oomph. No wonder I crave chocolate in the afternoon. Our bodies feel the greatest pressure to sleep between 1 and 4am, but a second, dip in energy hits between 1 and 4pm each day.

“Why don’t you take a nap?” my husband asks.

“I can’t,” I explain. “I’m on a deadline.”

When work needs to be done, it often seems the only place to carve the extra time from is sleep. So I’m incurring a new sleep debt while writing a story about sleep deprivation. Despite all I’ve learned in recent days about the deleterious effects of sleep loss, I’m inclined to forge ahead.

Just one problem: I’m not thinking straight. For three days now, circumstances have conspired to cut short my sleep. The first day I nearly poured juice in my coffee. The second day I successfully added milk to my coffee, but tried to put the milk jug into the microwave instead of the fridge. The third day I poured cereal, instead of coffee, into my mug. Maybe I do need a nap. But when?

Like any sleepy high schooler, I complain, slightly whining, about the trials of being a night owl in a lark-based world. My husband reminds me of our friends doing high-tech government jobs on flexible schedules that start as late as 11am. I have to admit that my husband is right — and the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics agrees.

More than 25 million workers — mainly people doing executive, administrative, managerial or sales work — vary their work day to some degree beyond the standard hours between 6am and 6pm. It’s often the employee who chooses the shift’s hours, at least within a range of times offered by the employer.

Not all work is so flexible, though: Another 15 million people, or 17 percent of us, work evenings, nights or rotating schedules that alternate some days, some evenings and some graveyard shifts. Hospital staff, police officers, firefighters, factory workers and the graveyard workers at all-night diners, 24-hour gas stations and convenience stores: All work through the hours when the rest of the world seems asleep.

“The sleep of a laboring man is sweet.”
—Ecclesiastes 5:12

Leroy Jones has been a member of the Anne Arundel County Fire Department for 24 years. In that time, he’s performed just about all of the jobs the fire department offers: He’s been a firefighter, paramedic and pump operator and he’s worked three stints in the communications center as a dispatcher, the post he holds now.

“Communications is the most stressful job in the fire department,” Jones explains. “You get constant calls coming in, you have to get everyone to the right place, decide which units to send. You have to keep the person on the phone until help arrives, and you may be telling them over the phone how to do CPR until the paramedics get there. Communications begins the call and ends the call and monitors it the whole time in between.”

The schedule is no picnic, either. Jones works two 10-hour days from 7am until 5pm, followed by two 14-hour nights, from 5pm until 7am. Then he gets four days off before starting the cycle again.

“The dispatch schedule is rougher,” he says, than the 24-hour shifts he works when he’s stationed in a firehouse. On the 24-hour shift, “It’s more of a family-type thing. You eat lunch and dinner together, watch tv together and then sleep together” — at least until a call comes in.
On busy nights, he doesn’t sleep at all. But there were also some slow ones when he slept pretty well — unless he pulled two 24s in a row. Then it could take as much as a week to recover.

But on the dispatch shift, if it’s slow, he says, “you gotta drink some coffee, wash your face a couple of times, get up and walk around, whatever you have to do to keep from falling asleep.”

Despite the fatigue, Jones is rarely able to sleep past noon. “The hardest part is the second night,” he says, “when your body is changing from sleeping at night to sleeping in the day. And the older you get, the longer it takes to recover.”

By the end of the four-day schedule, he says, “you just want quiet time. You get headaches from being tired, headaches from the stress. You don’t want to be bothered.”

“He’s definitely moody by his second night,” reports his wife, Jeanne.

Like Jones, 55 percent of people in protective services like fire and police work perform shift work, as do 30 percent of healthcare workers. The jobs mean a lot of sleep lost for them, but a safer world for the rest of us.

Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep.
—Proverbs 6:10; 24:33

It’s 2:57am, and I stumble out of bed to cries of “Mommy!” My three-year-old daughter has just wakened from a dream. As I comfort her, I hear noises from the next room where our six-month-old baby has awakened. I return to bed at 3:46.

If our energy levels reach their lowest ebb between 1 and 4am, I think, why are my children always awake at 3?

Three-fourths of the way through this article, my sleep debt reaches new heights — or depths. I walk into rooms and wonder why. I resort, guiltily, to the child-rearing prop of sleep-deprived parents everywhere: television cartoons. My handwriting devolves into a scrawl. I can’t seem to hold two thoughts in my head simultaneously, and my attempts at structuring this story don’t seem to make sense. I remain in nearly constant physical motion, even standing up while I scribble story notes, hoping that the physical effort will keep me, if not alert, at least awake.

Interrupted sleep — thanks to a baby or a barking dog, traffic noise or low-flying jets screaming over your roof — is nothing new. And in some occupations it’s an intrinsic part of the job. I will not give sleep to mine eyes, or slumber to mine eyelids.
—Psalm 132: 4; Proverbs 6:4

For long-haul truckers Barbara and Joel Rookstool, work isn’t measured by shifts but by miles. The husband-and-wife team drives a big rig cross-country, each one driving in five- to seven-hour shifts while the other catches sleep in the bunks slung behind the cab’s seats. In the 15 years they’ve been driving tractor-trailers, they’ve worked for four companies, including one that did contract deliveries for Federal Express.

“When we left the house, we had to push constantly. We covered 5,000 miles every five to six days,” says Barbara. “That included squeezing in all our meals, showers and walking Friendly,” the German shepherd who rides with them.

“Someone is behind the wheel about every minute. And the more days you’ve been on the road” — for the Rookstools, it’s sometimes weeks at a time — “the harder it is to keep up the pace.”

“With the constant braking of the truck for scales or traffic or to refuel, with headlights shining in through the windshield,” she explains, “it’s never a deep sleep. You just never feel rested.

“Sometimes we pull off into a rest stop to catch some sleep. But you know the clock’s always ticking. We get paid by the miles we drive, and that’s always on your mind when you’re stopped, wondering if you’re turning the trip fast enough, if someone else will get the load that might have been yours if you’d gotten in five hours earlier.”

Like table-waiting Erwin and so many of the rest of us, the Rookstools’ daily schedule has been shaped by their working days.

Even at home, we rarely sleep more than five hours a night. There’s always just such a push to get everything done: Get the laundry done, the truck cleaned — because we never know when we’ll head back out again. It might be only a few hours’ notice.”

Barbara and Joel try to shut the truck down between 2 and 6am, when fatigue is greatest. But half of America’s drivers report driving while fatigued, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration blames drowsy driving for 100,000 car crashes each year, 40,000 injuries, and 1,550 fatalities.

Researchers in Australia and New Zealand report that driving with less than six hours sleep, or after 16 to 19 hours awake, impairs coordination, reaction time and judgment as badly as if the driver had a blood-alcohol level of .05 percent — enough to be legally impaired in many states and legally drunk in most of Europe.

How close are we to driving on the edge? We’re all so sleep-deprived that each year when we move clocks forward an hour for daylight savings time, traffic accidents jump by six percent as a result of adding a single hour to the sleep debt we’re already running.

It’s not just driving that puts us at risk: Some extraordinary tragedies have been blamed, at least in part, on sleep deprivation. Nuclear power plant operators at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl were operating on too little sleep before those middle-of-the-night accidents. The third mate guiding the Exxon Valdez had gotten insufficient sleep when the tanker ran aground in Prince William Sound. When NASA engineers decided to use Morton Thiokol’s O-rings in the space shuttle Challenger, they’d worked weeks of 12- to 16-hour days: No one was alert enough to evaluate the data the O-ring manufacturer was providing. Sleep deprivation is a terrible thing.

Tired nature’s sweet restorer, balmy sleep!
—Edward Young, 1683–1765

From high schools to restaurants and fire departments and across the nation’s highways, National Sleep Awareness Week is coming at just the right time. It begins April 1, when we set our clocks forward and lose an hour’s sleep.

Why not mark the week — April 1 through 7 — with some extra snooze time?

If it still seems like you can’t fit the extra sleep into your nightly routine, take heart. Help is on the way: April 8 is National Workplace Napping Day.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly