One of the most common complaints patients present with at the sleep center is fatigue and daytime sleepiness. I treat many sleep abnormalities that could cause these symptoms, but oftentimes patients are simply not allowing themselves enough hours for quality sleep. Many expect to go to bed at midnight and then rise at 6 am for work feeling refreshed.

Upon further questioning, most patients who complain of fatigue report that they watch television in bed while simultaneously browsing the Internet and texting friends about their latest findings.

Americans slept an average of nine to 10 hours each night before television was invented. Today we sleep an average of 6.9 hours on weeknights and 7.5 hours a night on weekends. To get a better idea of how technology is interfering with our sleep patterns, let’s look at data from the National Sleep Foundation’s 2011 Sleep in America Poll:

  • 97% of respondents reported using some form of technology during the hour before bed on all or at least a few weeknights
  • 60% reported watching television in bed
  • Four in 10 patients take their cell phone to bed and use it while trying to fall asleep
  • Six in 10 reported using a computer before bedtime

It is no wonder these patients have difficulty going to sleep! The artificial light exposure from these devices sends signals to the brain that suppress melatonin and make patients more likely to awaken feeling fatigued.

Lack of sleep can affect hormones, mental functioning, blood sugar and BP levels, and the immune system. Some researchers are even concerned that America’s lack of sleep could be contributing to the obesity epidemic.

Be an advocate for better sleep by reminding patients how important it is to get adequate sleep, and discussing good sleep habits. Ask your patients to put away any electronic devices at least one hour before bed, preferably two. Suggest calming activities, such as reading a book or talking with family members, as replacement behaviors. Lastly, challenge patients who complain of fatigue and daytime sleepiness to try these techniques for at least one week. I bet they will sleep much better.

Sharon M. O’Brien, MPAS, PA-C, works at Presbyterian Sleep Health in Charlotte, N.C. Her main interest is helping patients understand the importance of sleep hygiene and the impact of sleep on health.