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Healthy Living: Holiday ZZZZZZZZs in Short Supply

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If Santa Claus truly sees people when they're sleeping, he knows they're sleeping less and less. And that can be a big health problem, especially during the holidays.

Americans, already among the most sleep-deprived cultures south of the North Pole, lose even more sleep during the holidays. And the consequences can be dangerous.

"It's a major problem in the trucking industry, and it's a major problem for children," said Dr. Gary Freed, professor of pediatrics at Emory University and also the director of the Apnea Center and the Sleep Center at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.

A recent Gallup Organization poll showed that 76 percent of respondents lose sleep between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. Reasons vary, but stress is a key culprit. Grief takes a major toll, as 40 percent said that the memory of the loss of a loved one kept them from sleeping.

As holiday pressures mount, the average adult will join children in unhealthy sleep patterns and lose three to four hours of sleep a week, the Gallup Poll shows. The result could be not only a dysfunctional family holiday but also crashes on packed holiday freeways and a stage set for future medical problems, ranging from high blood pressure to diabetes and obesity.

"The problem is that cutting back on sleep just one hour can cut down on mental alertness by one- third," said Dr. Clete Kushida, director of the Stanford University Center for Human Sleep Disorder Research. "It's a problem especially during the holidays because people are cramming in social activities, jobs, and they cut back on sleep."

Most adults need at least seven hours of sleep each night on a regular basis, doctors said. One who gets less than that for several nights on end will suffer loss of concentration, irritability and sometimes irrational anger.

Growing children need even more; some experts recommend as many as 10 hours of sleep for high schoolers. Loss of sleep in children can cause learning and behavioral difficulties as well as future health problems.

Ra'naa Gray, 11, knows all too well how it feels to lose sleep regularly. A snoring problem keeps her awake, and she has trouble concentrating in school at Bouie Elementary in DeKalb County. Her pediatrician recently referred her to a sleep clinic for help in pinpointing her problem.

Ra'naa's problem is worsened by the holiday rush, said her mother, Debora Gray.

"She's a little more excited, and she stays up later," Gray said. That has consequences for mother, too.

"I'm real tired," said Gray. "I sleep whenever I can."

A sleepy driver can be as dangerous as a drunken one, some studies suggest. When the body is deprived of sound sleep for days on end, the body's natural response is to force itself to sleep, even if only in tiny parcels of time, regardless of how hard the mind is fighting to stay awake. The head will drop, and the eyes will close for a few seconds. Even one second can have fatal consequences on the road.

"The body will drive us to sleep," said Freed. "That's what happens in microsleep, when your brain is shutting down. That's the big thing we see during the holidays."

Sleep deprivation hurts children, from the infants who get overtired from being passed around from relative to relative to toddlers who compensate for their exhaustion by becoming hyperactive. Many teenagers will hurt themselves by trying to "catch up" on lost sleep by sleeping late when they are out of school. Experts said that doing so actually worsens the problem because it throws off the body's sensitive circadian rhythms and causes chemical imbalances that can affect growth.

Continued research into the effects of sleep deprivation indicates that the bad effects don't stop at car and truck crashes. Lack of sleep may affect the body's ability to process carbohydrates (because of a lower level of the hormone leptin), and chronic sleep loss might be a factor in Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. Also, growth hormone is secreted during sleep. It not only regulates childhood growth but also helps maintain muscle mass in adults. Thus, sleep loss may actually contribute to obesity.

Researchers do not expect a sudden shift in behavior, though. Bad sleep habits may be as ingrained in the American psyche as poor diet.

"The whole culture has progressed without sleep," said Freed. "We wear it as a badge of honor and belittle the other cultures. It'll take a long time to shift."

Copyright 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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