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Thursday, June 22, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Wake up to the reality of sleep deprivation

Newhouse News Service

I took a sleeping pill the other night, as a last resort for caffeine-laced insomnia. It was like a 10-hour sleigh ride through an enchanted forest.

These pills may be addictive, the warning label said.

No kidding, I said.

Sleep is the new sex, as the experts in sleep disorders like to say. Men think about it every seven seconds or so. Women romanticize it. Teenagers yearn for the weekends, when they might get a little of it.

These days, sleep is just another basic need that Americans can't seem to meet. And though the national sleep deficit is mostly a cultural issue, it's easier to treat as a medical problem than as a symptom of life out of whack.

"People don't wind down," said Pepper Schwartz, a sociologist at the University of Washington who studies relationships and wellness. "You go to bed and your mind is still racing."

The National Sleep Foundation released its annual poll March 28 that confirms what most people already know, if they could escape their groggy haze long enough to form a coherent thought: Nobody gets enough sleep.

The reasons are familiar. People spend more hours working and driving, and they raise their children, manage their households and care for aging parents on the fly. They also stay plugged into the grid longer, tapping out e-mails until bedtime.

Then they expect to screech to a halt and enter REM on demand.

"People feel the need to be very efficient in their sleep," said Heather Hartley, a sociology professor at Portland State University who studies the links between drug companies and society. "They budget a set amount of time and then get stressed out if they can't go immediately to sleep. There's no cushion."

There probably was never a golden age of sleep in this country, as if Americans were well-rested before globalization, the Internet and women's liberation came along and ruined everything. We've always worked hard. Even our old colloquialisms for sleep, such as "hitting the hay" and "sawing logs," are work-related.

But the collective fatigue is growing. People sleep nearly an hour less each night than they did two generations ago, according to historic estimates of sleep patterns. High-school seniors are among the most sleep-deprived, getting about two hours less each weeknight than the nine hours they need.

The sleep experts say relax, drink less coffee and booze, eat better, rest more. The drug companies say take a pill.

These days, a prescription is far easier to acquire than a healthy life.

Americans filled an astounding 42 million prescriptions for sleeping pills last year, up 60 percent since 2000, according to the research company IMS Health. Drug companies spent $300 million marketing sleeping pills such as Lunesta and Ambien last year and grossed $2 billion in sales.

Meanwhile, coffee consumption keeps rising.

"Something's got to give," said Leslie Hammer, a PSU psychology professor who has begun to study sleeplessness as a symptom of work stress. Personal coping strategies can only do so much, she added, when the economy and culture are rigged against a good night's sleep.

I don't intend to pop a sleeping pill more than once every few years, no matter how many Lunesta ads crowd my favorite television shows. The drug-induced slumber feels a little too much like getting hit in the head.

But sometimes, you just can't sleep. As the former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins once wrote about insomnia, "Something inside me will not/ get off his tricycle,/ will not stop tracing the same tight circle/ on the same green threadbare carpet."

So the little pill beckons, offering instant relief for your Chronic Sleep Disorder. You get on the sleigh and pull the fur robes snug around your neck, and glide through the forest toward the golden pot of coffee shimmering on the horizon.

It's not a good night's sleep, but it's the next-best thing.

Susan A. Nielsen, former editorial writer and columnist for The Seattle Times, is an associate editor at The Oregonian of Portland. She can be contacted at susannielsen@news.oregonian.com

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