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lack of sleep dangers
Early on the Sunday morning after Thanksgiving, four passengers died and dozens were injured when a commuter train bound for New York’s Grand Central Station derailed on a curved stretch of track in the Bronx. The fact that the train had failed to slow down for the curve was subsequently attributed to the engineer, an experienced employee with a previously unblemished record, having apparently dozed off  just prior to the accident, due to lack of sleep. 

Those casualties, however, though given widespread media coverage,were just a few more added to  the hundreds of fatalities and tens of thousands of injuries that occur in America every year due to lack of sleep. Fatigue is a factor in more than 100,000 crashes, resulting in 1,550 deaths and 40,000 injuries annually, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In addition to causing momentary lapses in consciousness, lack of sleep affects the ability to operate a car, truck, train, or even a plane, by impairing coordination, judgment, memory and reaction time.  It’s a lot  like being under the influence of alcohol in the way it can delude you about your ability to function normally.

But whereas drunk driving is directly related to a conscious decision to imbibe excessively before getting behind the wheel, driving while drowsy may not necessarily be the result of deliberate behavior, like staying out too late or watching TV until the wee hours (Hey, there was a time when TV networks said “good-night” at a certain hour and put on a test pattern until morning). It may simply be due to an individual’s having somehow failed to get a good night’s sleep. That can happen when your body’s “circadian rhythm,” your “master clock” that normally controls sleeping and waking cycles, somehow gets thrown out of whack.

Lately, scientists have begun paying a lot more attention to the importance of circadian rhythms and their influence on production of the hormone melatonin on our overall health, well-being and alertness. The focus on them even recently extended to the sports world with a study undertaken by researchers from three prestigious universities, who determined that “(p)rofessional football players playing close to the circadian peak in performance demonstrate a significant athletic advantage over those who are playing at other times,” based on a comparative analysis of day and night games played between NFL teams from the East and West Coasts.

But if insomnia can make such a big difference in performance — and actually put our lives and those of others at risk — there may be ways we can avoid it other than taking sleeping pills that can be habit-forming and have undesirable side effects. Causes of sleep disruption can range from taking certain medications before bedtime to suffering from acid reflux or pain to having pets in your bed or even exposure to “blue” light — the kind given off by computer screens, tablets, and compact fluorescent bulbs — in the hours before going to bed.

People often don’t have any idea what’s disturbing their sleep,” says Thomas Roth, PhD, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. “They assume it’s one thing, but it’s actually something else entirely.”

Figuring out what may be causing us to toss and turn all night and taking steps to correct the situation (sometimes simple ones) could make a big difference in the way we feel, how well we perform — and even whether we can get ourselves to our destination and back safely.

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Linda Bonvie

Linda Bonvie is an author and consumer advocate with over 20 years of experience researching and writing about food safety, health and environmental issues. She is the editor of FoodIdentityTheft.com, for which she writes twice weekly blogs, and is co-author of Chemical-Free Kids: How to Safeguard Your Child’s Diet and Environment (2003) and Chemical-Free Kids: the Organic Sequel (2008), as well as The Stevia Story: a tale of incredible sweetness and intrigue (1997). Articles she has co-authored with her brother Bill have been published in a number of top magazines and many major newspapers. One, an expose on the spraying of passengers on international flights with a toxic pesticide, which was published back in 1993, led to the requirement being dropped by a couple dozen countries after then-Transportation Secretary Federico Pena became personally involved in the issue.