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One day in 2007, Arianna Huffington was at home on the phone and checking emails when she passed out, fell, and woke up in a pool of blood, with a broken cheekbone and a cut over her eye, according to this week's People magazine.
Huffington, who had been working 18-hour days building the Huffington Post website, was terrified. After weeks of medical tests, doctors finally came back with a simple, if disturbing, answer: She was exhausted.
Now recovered, she told the magazine she tries to get more sleep and is grateful for the "wake-up call that changed my life."
It's not just famous workaholics like Huffington, or celebrities like Paula Deen, Lindsay Lohan or Demi Moore who can't function because of exhaustion. Extreme tiredness and lack of sleep is experienced by regular people, too — and we should know when it's getting dangerous to our health.
At least 78 percent of American adults say their stress level increased or stayed the same over the past five years, with 33 percent saying their stress levels are affecting their mental health, according to a recent report from the American Psychological Association. Almost half of adults say stress has caused bouts of insomnia within the past month, the APA report found.
When and how do the stresses and challenges of daily life become so severe that they pose a serious threat? What are the warning signs? And how do we prevent it from really hurting our health?
The problem is more pervasive than most people realize, said Dr. Nathaniel Watson, a neurologist and sleep-medicine specialist at the University of Washington. “We estimate that about a third of Americans are sleeping less than six hours per night,” he said, when they should be getting “between seven and nine hours for optimal performance.”
The health consequences can be profound: an increase in the risk of heart attacks, strokes, diabetes or even death.
Part of the reason for Americans’ sleeplessness is that attitudes toward sleep have changed. “The zeitgeist of our times is that sleep is for lazy people, and people who suck the marrow out of life sleep way less,” Watson said. “We live in a 24-hour society. Our economy is constantly churning. We have media at our fingertips all day and all night. I call it the caffeine-industrial complex.”
Dr. Amit Sood of the Mayo Clinic, who consults with corporate executives on stress management, said we sometimes fail to recognize a lack of sleep in ourselves — partly because of the loss of judgment that comes with fatigue.
Warning signs of serious sleep deficiency:
- Your mind wanders
- You explode at your family
- You get upset easily
- Weight gain
As the situation worsens, “you stop finding meaning in what you’re doing. You start dehumanizing people,” Sood said.
Further, when we lose sleep, our minds will often dwell on unpleasant thoughts, adding to stress and diminishing the quality of life.
Sood, who practices integrative medicine, advises people not to reach for technology first thing in the morning.
“When people wake up, the first thing that greets them is their iPhone,” he said.
Instead, he tells his patients that before they get out of bed, they should think of five people in their lives they are grateful for.
“You choose what to focus on,” he said.
Other exhaustion-easing exercises are designed to encourage not only gratitude, but also compassion, acceptance, a focus on what’s meaningful in life, forgiveness and celebration.
It’s a way to “simplify, prioritize, get control over our attention,” he said.
Watson advises his patients to try a simple experiment:
- Prioritize sleep for a few weeks.
- Go to bed when you’re tired, and sleep until you’re rested.
“We find that people feel much better and are much more clear-headed.”
Sleep, he said, should be thought of as one of the three things essential for good health — along with a healthy diet and regular exercise.
Watson said he discovered the value of sleep while working 36-hour shifts as a resident during his medical training. Now he gets seven or eight hours of sleep, he said.
Huffington reports that in the wake of her bout of exhaustion, she now gets at least seven hours of sleep a night, despite a busy schedule.
“When it’s time to go to bed — go to bed,” said Watson.