Too tired for sex? Does your race make you sleep less? This week, the National Sleep Foundation released their annual study on the bedtime habits and sleeping patterns of Americans, For the first time, the Foundation studied the effects of race on sleep. ESSENCE.com reached out to Dr. Barbara Phillips, who worked on the comprehensive study and is one of the nation’s leading sleep experts, to find out why–among other things–African Americans get less sleep than Hispanics, Whites or Asian Americans. ESSENCE.com: Your annual “Sleep In America” poll examined the differences in sleep habits of different ethnic groups. Why did the National Sleep Foundation include analysis of America’s sleep habits this new way? DR. BARBARA PHILLIPS: Some data suggests that there are ethnic and/or genetic variations in sleep habits and perceptions. The NSF was interested in exploring this area a little more fully. ESSENCE.com: What were the highlights of discovery you found in the sleep patterns and habits among different races? DR. PHILLIPS: That there really are differences between ethnic groups and sleep patterns. Overall, it appears that Asians sleep “better,” that African-Americans get the least amount of sleep, and that there are major differences in what the groups do in the critical hour before sleep. ESSENCE.com: What plays a greater influence: culture or genetics? DR. PHILLIPS: The jury is still out on this one. Certainly, some sleep disorders are genetic, including narcolepsy, Restless Legs Syndrome, and probably sleep apnea. And the amount of sleep an individual needs in order to be at his/her best is probably at least partly genetically determined. But culture and behavior are critically important in how we function with the cards that nature deals us. As we say in epidemiology, “Nature loads the gun, but behavior pulls the trigger.” ESSENCE.com:You found African Americans get the least amount of sleep during the week than any other race (six hours, 14 minutes)–why is that, according to The National Sleep Foundation’s new data? DR. PHILLIPS: I don’t think we know why African-Americans sleep less, just that they do. In fact, this finding reinforces results from larger, even more sophisticated studies conducted previously. My best guess is that work and stress interfere with getting enough sleep for this group. ESSENCE.com: Why would African Americans have more sleep apnea than any other race (one in seven)? DR. PHILLIPS: One important reason is that the African Americans included in this poll tended to be more overweight than other respondents. Seventy-eight percent of African Americans were overweight or obese, compared with 67% of whites, 40% of Asians and 75% of Hispanics. Obesity is an important risk factor for sleep apnea. ESSENCE.com: Health-related literature seems to link obesity with sleep apnea, but for African Americans this study indicates it’s not just about obesity. Sleep apnea can be fatal, and this research indicates a slim and fit African American could be at greater risk for this condition? DR. PHIILIPS: Some previous data suggests that being African American is a risk factor for sleep apnea, independent of obesity, probably based on genetics. So, being an overweight African American puts a person at double risk for sleep apnea. ESSENCE.com: What is the role genetics play? DR. PHILLIPS: Biologically, there is a shape in an African American jaw line that affects the throat opening to breathe air in and out–it is a smaller opening–so it has a potentially greater risk to impair breathing while asleep. ESSENCE.com: So African Americans are getting a less restful night’s sleep than other races. How could this affect their waking hours? DR. PHIILIPS: In the short term, inadequate or disrupted sleep affects vigilance and reaction time, and is associated with an increased risk of car or other vehicular crash. It’s also associated with worse academic performance in students (although this study was about adults). ESSENCE.com: What about the long term? Does this new information change some of the prior reasons attributed to health concerns for African Americans? DR. PHILLIPS: We have known for some time that African Americans are at increased risk for high blood pressure and heart disease, and the reasons for this are not completely understood. We also know that short sleepers are at increased risk for hypertension and heart disease. So, it is possible that the short sleep that African Americans get may be one of the factors accounting for their increased risk of heart disease. ESSENCE.com: What can African Americans do to greater protect themselves and their loved ones from these restless sleep patterns and their after-effects? DR. PHIILIPS: Make sleep a priority, and try to set aside 7-8 hours a day for it. Try to have a regular sleep-wake schedule (same bed time and waking time on most days). Maintain a normal weight, avoid alcohol, and don’t smoke. Don’t drink caffeine after lunch. Set aside some time to wind down before bed. If you or someone you love is stopping breathing during sleep, see your doctor! ESSENCE.com: What about sleeping and sex before bedtime–how did that break down racially and how does it affect sleep? DR. PHILLIPS: African Americans and Hispanics were much more likely to report having sex every night or almost every night before sleep. This was a striking difference. However, they were not more likely to report having better or longer sleep, so I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions about this. ESSENCE.com: The study chronicled habits such as the races least likely to sleep alone or with another person. Who was most likely to sleep alone? DR. PHILLIPS: Asian Americans were more likely to sleep alone, even if partnered. They were also more likely to sleep better. Again, this is subject to interpretation and conjecture. ESSENCE.com: Who was most likely to sleep with a partner? DR. PHILLIPS: White people were more likely to sleep with a partner. Whites were also the most likely to sleep with a pet than other groups. ESSENCE.com: Hispanics and African Americans were more likely to sleep with a child or infant. How does sleeping with a partner affect one’s sleep? DR. PHILLIPS: Based on this data, I don’t think we can claim that it improves sleep. ESSENCE.com: Same thing for a sleeping with a pet? DR. PHILLIPS: Ditto. ESSENCE.com: The race that gets the best night’s sleep in the study is Asian Americans, with five of six saying they get a good night’s sleep five of every six days. What habits do they have that might cause this more restful sleep? DR. PHILLIPS: Asians were the least likely group to watch TV, drink alcohol or sleep with a partner. Although they were the most likely to use a computer right before bed. ESSENCE.com: Rituals at bedtime are also found to help adults? DR. PHILLIPS: Probably. In this study, people who reported praying right before sleep slept better. ESSENCE.com: What did you learn about the habit of prayer before bed? DR. PHILLIPS: African Americans most likely to pray before bed. ESSENCE.com: Overall, what characteristics do all of the races share in common? DR. PHILLIPS: All are sleep deprived and most common pre-sleep activity is TV before bed. ESSENCE.com: Does stress, specifically tougher economic times for many families, play a role? DR. PHILLIPS: I think this data shows how much stress in general and the economy in particular affect our sleep. Personal financial concerns and employment concerns were the biggest concerns that were reported to be disturbing sleep for all groups. ESSENCE.com: What’s the good news for the sleep patterns all of the groups showed? DR. PHILLIPS: All groups would do well getting more sleep, however very small numbers reported “never” getting a good night’s sleep. ESSENCE.com: Are sleeping medications a good idea? DR. PHILLIPS: Not in the long run. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is safer and more effective for chronic sleeping problems. ESSENCE.com: Were there racial significances in who takes sleeping meds? DR. PHILLIPS: In this poll, White people were more likely (11%) to use a precipitate or over-the-counter sleeping aid. Hispanics were also likely (18%) to use an over-the-counter aid. Interestingly, Asians were much more likely to talk to family and friends, and assume that it will go away in time. ESSENCE.com: What did you discover about the sleeping habits and patterns of mothers–always known as a chronically sleep deprived group. Was that the case? DR. PHILLIPS: We didn’t study new moms as an isolated indicator the way we did race in this poll. But an earlier National Sleep Foundation poll showed that they really struggle to get enough sleep. My advice: Get help! One woman cannot manage a new baby all by herself. The traditional sources of help include the baby’s father, your mother, and any sisters that you have. Don’t try to be a super woman–enlist the help of those who love you. ESSENCE.com: How does this affect mothers in their waking hours? DR. PHILLIPS: Fatigue, errors due to inattention, mood swings. ESSENCE.com: What are some things moms can do to try to improve their ability to sleep–and what’s the minimum a mom should sleep–even if she is a new mother? DR. PHILLIPS: She needs the same sleep she needed before the baby came. That’s why I say ask anyone who loves or cares for you to help. ESSENCE.com: A mom with a newborn or a mom who is juggling too much to get those bottom-line hours can’t deprive herself when she needs her rest the most. What can she do during the waking hours to help the morning after a sleepless night? DR. PHILLIPS: No one knows for sure, but caffeine is alerting. If you must get up and function after a sleepless night (as most of us do), it will improve your performance. So, a qualified yes on this. ESSENCE.com: What happens to the sleep patterns of moms letting the children sleep in bed with her? DR. PHILLIPS: Co-sleeping is a controversial subject and there is considerable cultural variation in approaches to this. It probably does disturb sleep of the mother, and is also associated with an increased risk of SIDS. Having said that, it is quite prevalent in many parts of the world. Read more:
Dr. Barbara Phillips is a consultant to the Sleep Institute of the American College of Chest Physicians. She is a past-chairman of the National Sleep Foundation, and has served on the boards of the American Lung Association, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the Medical Advisory Board of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the American Board of Sleep Medicine. She has received a Sleep Academic Award from the National Institutes of Health and has served on the advisory board to the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research.
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