Are You Aware of This Little-Known Public Health Problem Threatening Americans?

When the phrase "public health epidemic" is uttered, everything from Zika virus to drug overdoses comes to mind. But there's currently a lesser-known but equally prevalent threat to public health impacting millions of Americans, and it may even be lurking inside your home without your knowledge. What is this mysterious malady? Lack of sleep.

Insufficient sleep is so much of an issue that it's officially been deemed a public health problem by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There's no better time to shine the light on this vital topic than during May's "Better Sleep Month." Here's a closer look at why sleep matters, along with a few tips aimed at helping you get enough of those substantive ZZZs.

Is Lack of Sleep That Big a Deal?

Just because no one knows exactly why humans sleep doesn't mean it's not an important activity. Scientists continue to discover the many ways in which sleep helps people lead better, fuller, longer lives due to its essential role as a protective mechanism. Sleep is so crucial that it falls into the same category as breathing and eating when it comes to sustaining life.  

What happens when you don't get enough sleep? If you're like most people, you probably get a little cranky. However, the consequences of repeated lack of sleep can be far more severe than the need for an extra cup of coffee following the occasional late night.

Insufficient sleep is linked with increased risk for several potentially life-threatening outcomes, including everything from car crashes and industrial disasters to occupational hazards and medical mistakes. Need more proof? Lack of sleep has been ruled as a significant factor in many of recent history's most catastrophic incidents, including Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, the space shuttle Challenger, and Exxon Valdez, according to a report from Harvard. 

In addition to being linked with on- and off-the-job accidents, sleep deprivation is also associated with a broad range of chronic diseases, including everything from diabetes and obesity to depression and cancer. It has even been connected with increased mortality!

How Much Sleep Is Enough?

While the specifics of sleep requirements not only vary by the person but also change throughout the aging process, the average adult needs between seven and eight hours of sleep, according to the National Institutes of Health. The bad news, according to the CDC? Nearly 30 percent of adults get less than six hours of sleep a night.

Is a Better Night's Sleep in Your Future?

Luckily, some simple techniques can help you sleep better. For starters, establishing a firm routine for sleeping and waking is key. Avoid large meals, alcohol, and caffeine, as these can also contribute to wakefulness. Lastly, minimize stimulation by creating a "sleep zone" that's dark, cool, technology-free, and reserved exclusively for sleeping and sex.

In some cases, however, adopting healthier lifestyle behaviors may not solve the problem due to undiagnosed, underlying medical causes. In fact, between 50 and 70 million American adults suffer from some form of sleep disorder. If you continue to struggle with sleep issues after modifying your habits, consult with your family doctor, who can offer invaluable partnership in diagnosing and treating sleep apnea, insomnia, and other medical conditions.

Insufficient sleep doesn't have to be part of your future. Commit to getting enough during May's Healthy Sleep Month not only to enjoy a better mood and enhanced day-to-day functionality, but also to avoid accidents and even enjoy a longer life. With so many demands on your time, waking hours may feel like an essential resource. However, the truth is that sleep is one of life's most precious commodities. The best part? It's free!

Consult with a family doctor to learn more about this topic.