America’s sleep debt is growing. More and more people are not getting the sleep they need. One reason is that far too many people look on not sleeping as a badge of honor, indifferent to the costs it exacts. Those costs, however, should not be overlooked. For example, one study found that people with insomnia are almost three times as likely to die in a car accident or from some other injury than people who are getting adequate sleep.
In fact, sleeplessness can cause problems for children and adults alike. Insomniac children have trouble with focus, and can have immune deficits. Teenagers tend to need to sleep later than at any other stage of life and thus are particularly prone to racking up sleep debt. In adults, sleep debt accumulates and can contribute to heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, and obesity.
Many people facing insomnia try to self-medicate with alcohol, but this is not a good solution to the problem Counterintuitively, alcohol can actually make insomnia worse. That’s because it’s not only the amount but the quality of sleep someone gets that’s important, and drinking leads to poor quality sleep. While alcohol can make people fall asleep faster, it isn’t restorative sleep, merely the effects of alcohol on the central nervous system. Moreover, alcohol is a diuretic, meaning sleep tends to be interrupted—and because it can exacerbate the causes of sleep apnea, it can cause another sort of interruption as well.
In fact, drugs and insomnia have a complicated relationship. People recovering from drug addiction often have insomnia in the earliest stages of rehab, but insomnia also makes it more likely that the addiction treatment will prove unsuccessful and they will relapse. A recent study called sleep deprivation "prevalent and persistent" among patients in treatment for drug addiction. According to researchers, people in addiction recovery are five times as likely as the general population to have disturbed sleep patterns, in some cases for years after starting treatment. Moreover, the study shows, people with insomnia re more prone to drug addiction—particularly if the insomnia is brought on by rehab, since these people are already prone to addressing problems with drug use.