'Sleepless’ documentary is a real eye-opener

Sleepless in America

8 p.m. Sunday, National Geographic Channel

It’s too bad Adam Mansbach already used “Go the F- to Sleep” as a book title, because it is the resounding message of the new documentary “Sleepless in America,” airing Sunday on National Geographic Channel.

The two-hour film is a collaboration by the Public Good Projects, the National Institutes of Health and NatGeo to bring attention to what can only be called a national epidemic of modern American life – lack of sleep.

Before you think “don’t talk to me until I’ve had my coffee,” consider the stats:

• Forty percent of all Americans and 70 percent of adolescents are sleep deprived.

• Doctors issued 60 million prescriptions for sleep medications in 2011, a number which is surely even higher today.

• Americans on average sleep two hours less a night than they did 40 years ago.

• The average American sleeps less than seven hours Monday through Friday.

If you see yourself anywhere on that list, and statistics suggest that’s likely, you’re part of the modern epidemic of sleeplessness. And it is an epidemic whose roots can be found in the invention of artificial light.

Before Edison, most people went to bed shortly after dusk and got up with the sun the next morning, in accordance with what is known as the circadian rhythm common to all life. The circadian clock tells the body when to sleep and when to wake up and is tied to the 24-hour solar cycle.

Once humans started fooling around with day and night, so to speak, the circadian rhythm was interrupted, a process that has only worsened in modern times. By the way, humans are the only species to deny themselves sleep.

OK, so we know we don’t get enough sleep, but we are only beginning to know the full extent of sleeplessness on our health and well-being. Weight gain, depression, diabetes, memory loss, brain function impairment and stress are all factors that have been linked to sleep deprivation. Doctors are also exploring links to Alzheimer’s disease.

“We have stepped way outside our biological boundaries,” says Dr. Eve Van Cauter of the University of Chicago.

The film, produced and directed by John Hoffman of the Public Good Projects, is frightening – and it’s meant to be. Many of us think we can either catch up on sleep on the weekends or pop a pill. But the math of catching up on weekends doesn’t work, biologically speaking, and some sleep aids have side effects.

The best prescription – behavior modification – may seem easy, but it isn’t. In specific terms, it’s cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, a process that can be summed up as keeping regular sleep hours and staying in bed only for sleep or sex – but it’s almost as difficult as quitting smoking.

The film is loaded with scary information about what sleep deprivation is doing to us. It’s an eye-opener, but if you pay attention, it may not keep you up at night.