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Sleep in the city: big-city living may cause insomnia, sleep loss

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  • poor sleep
  • Insomnia

Sleep Education Archive  |  Sep 26, 2008
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Even the best sleepers may toss and turn in bed when the conditions aren’t quite right. The bedroom is too hot, or too cold. The neighbors are too loud. The windows let in too much light. This can make getting to sleep a nightly challenge for some city dwellers.

“As a ‘big-city doctor’ there is some insomnia that I see that is city related,” said Dr. Lisa Wolfe. She is a sleep specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

She says noise is one of the most common sleep-disrupters in the city. You may live too close to a highway or busy street. Air traffic from a nearby airport may buzz overhead at all hours.

Dr. Wolfe had one patient who lived too close to Chicago’s elevated train tracks. The rumbling sound of the trains frequently woke him at night. Eventually he had to move.

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, this type of problem is called environmental sleep disorder. “Environmental” factors such as noise or light cause a complaint of insomnia.

The problem can cause daytime sleepiness, mood swings and irritability. Over time it may result in severe sleep deprivation. This increases the risk of problems such as depression and poor job performance.

Some people are more sensitive than others to these disturbances. Older adults tend to be affected more easily than young adults. Sensitivity also tends to increase toward morning.

Dr. Wolfe says that the busy pace of life in the city also can cause sleep loss. Long commute times are one culprit.

“We know that big-city living in the nation overall is associated with longer commute times,” she said. “This limits available time for sleep and is associated with more daytime sleepiness.”

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the national average time to work is 25.3 minutes. Over a year this adds up to more than 200 hours of time going to and from work. Data were collected in the 2007 American Community Survey.

Some cities such as Chicago and New York have an average commute time of more than 30 minutes. Nearly 16 percent of all U.S. workers have a commute of 45 minutes or more; 8.2 percent drive for 60 minutes or more to get to work.

Dr. Wolfe says that making sleep a priority is critical for city living.

“Protect your sleep time,” she said. “Don’t allow social and work issues to encroach on your predetermined sleep hours.”

She also says that regular exercise is important. Dr. Wolfe recommends relaxing techniques such as yoga and stretching.

The AASM recommends that you follow the tips of good sleep hygiene. If you have an ongoing sleep problem, then you should seek medical help. Contact an AASM-accredited sleep disorders center. Find an AASM-accredited sleep center near you.

The AASM also offers these Sleep Tips for City Living:
  • Make the most of your commute. Use your commute time to think through your problems so you can relax once you get home.
  • Block out city lights. Use thick curtains or shades to keep your room dark at night.
  • Drown out urban noise. Use a sound machine to fill your room with soothing sounds or “white noise.”
  • Limit nights out on the town. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same times each day.

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