Less Sleep, More Health Problems

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By: LeMara Perry
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In May, United Medical Center, the non-profit, full-service community hospital that serves Southeast DC and nearby Maryland communities, opened a sleep center to diagnose and treat individuals who suffer from sleep disorders.

While most people are aware of some of the health issues plaguing the Black community, there is little awareness about the detrimental effects of sleep disorders and how they occur in more African Americans than any other ethnic group.

In a 2011 article by Consuelo H. Wilkins, M.D in the St. Louis American , she writes in depth about the lack of sleep that African Americans are getting.

According to Wilkins, past studies have shown that Blacks are more likely to sleep fewer hours than other people from different races and ethnicities, and Blacks are more likely to have to take medications to help them sleep better.

Additionally, last year, the National Sleep Foundation conducted a study and found the following:

• Blacks report getting an average of 34 minutes less sleep on a work night/weeknight than Asians and 38 minutes less than whites.
• Seventeen percent of African-Americans are more likely than whites (9 percent) and Hispanics (13 percent) to do job-related work in the hour before bed.
• Blacks reported losing sleep every night over financial and employment concerns at a higher rate than whites.
• African-Americans (19 percent) say their sleep is disturbed every night or almost every night by at least one of these concerns.
• Blacks said they need less sleep in comparison to whites, Hispanics and Asians to perform at their best during the day.

What’s important to note is that not getting enough sleep is nothing to take lightly. Sleep deprivation can have long-lasting effects on our health.

It’s associated with serious health issues, including chronic medical conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease (all of which can lead to a shorter life expectancy). Lack of sleep can also alter your memory, cause accidents, increase your chance of gaining weight, cause mood imbalance and alter your ability to concentrate and be productive.

The key is getting in your eight hours a day — getting more than nine hours of sleep is also associated with poor health outcomes, too.

The four most common sleep disorders sleep apnea, insomnia, restless legs syndrome, and narcolepsy. Additional sleep problems include chronic insufficient sleep, circadian rhythm abnormalities, and “parasomnias” such as sleep walking, sleep paralysis, and night terrors.

Sleep apnea is seen more frequently among men than among women, particularly African-American men. A major symptom is extremely loud snoring, sometimes so loud that bed partners find it intolerable. Other indications that sleep apnea may be present are obesity, persistent daytime sleepiness, bouts of awakening out of breath during the night, and frequently waking in the morning with a dry mouth or a headache. But none of these symptoms is always present.

Only a sleep study in a sleep laboratory or a home sleep study can show definitively that sleep apnea is present and how severe it is.

Insomnia, difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, affects women more often than men. Young and middle-aged African Americans also might be at increased risk for insomnia. Research shows that, compared with Caucasian Americans, it takes African Americans longer to fall asleep. They also have lighter sleep, don’t sleep as well, and take more naps.
People with insomnia can feel dissatisfied with their sleep and usually experience one or more of the following: fatigue, low energy, difficulty concentrating, mood disturbances, and decreased performance in work or at school.

Restless legs syndrome is a neurologic movement disorder of the limbs that is often associated with a sleep complaint. Patients with RLS may report sensations, such as an almost irresistible urge to move the legs, that are not painful but are distinctly bothersome. RLS can lead to significant physical and emotional disability.

African Americans who have insomnia or symptoms of restless legs syndrome (RLS) have a significantly lower working memory capacity than Caucasians with insomnia and normal sleepers regardless of their ethnicity, according to research presented at the 25th Anniversary Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies.

“This study shows that the ability to engage in an attention-demanding memory task is more compromised among participants with RLS symptoms, and insomnia particularly, in Africans Americans compared with Caucasians within a self-reported healthy, young adult college sample,” reported graduate student Megan E. Ruiter and Kenneth L. Lichstein, PhD, Director of the Sleep Research Project, Department of Psychology, both at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. “The implication of this study might be that treatment outcomes for African Americans with insomnia or RLS may need to emphasize improvement in cognitive functioning.”

Narcolepsy is a chronic brain disorder that involves poor control of sleep-wake cycles. People with narcolepsy experience periods of extreme daytime sleepiness and sudden, irresistible bouts of sleep that can strike at any time. These “sleep attacks” usually last a few seconds to several minutes.

Narcolepsy can greatly affect daily activities. People may unwillingly fall asleep while at work or at school, when having a conversation, playing a game, eating a meal, or, most dangerously, when driving or operating other types of machinery. In addition to daytime sleepiness, other major symptoms may include cataplexy (a sudden loss of voluntary muscle tone while awake that makes a person go limp or unable to move), vivid dream-like images or hallucinations, as well as total paralysis just before falling asleep or just after waking-up.

Good sleep habits can help you get a good night’s sleep. Here are some tips:
• Try to go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time every morning. Try not to take naps during the day because naps may make you less sleepy at night.
• Try to avoid caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol late in the day. Caffeine and nicotine are stimulants and can keep you from falling asleep. Alcohol can make you wake up later in the night.
• Get regular exercise. Try not to exercise close to bedtime because it may stimulate you and make it hard to fall asleep. Experts suggest not exercising for 3 hours before the time you go to sleep.
• Don’t eat a big meal late in the day, although a light snack before bedtime may help you sleep.
• Make your sleeping place comfortable. Be sure that it is dark, quiet, and not too warm or too cold. If light is a problem, try a sleeping mask. If noise is a problem, try earplugs, a fan, or a “white noise” machine to cover up the sounds.

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