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Why Some People Sleep Better Than Others

... and what we can do to achieve the goal of sleep equity.

Key points

  • Sleep is necessary for living a healthy life and sleep ‎deprivation is associated with ‎adverse health ‎outcomes‎.‎
  • Sleep disparities exist across racial groups, and people ‎of color are disproportionally affected by poor sleep ‎conditions and disorders.‎
  • Individuals can sleep better by managing their stimulant use, designing a conducive space for sleep, and ‎establishing a sleep routine.
  • Yet to achieve broader sleep equity, we must address the ‎overall structural inequities embedded in society.

A vast body of research has confirmed that sleep is necessary for living a healthy life. Most of us can relate to this based purely on how a lack of sleep makes us feel—and what's more, over the long term, sleep deprivation is associated with many adverse health outcomes. In fact, a systematic review published in Sleep Medicine found that sleep deprivation is correlated with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and mortality, among other negative outcomes.

In other words, the importance of sleep cannot be overstated. To live a healthy life, we need to sleep well.

However, according to a position statement from the National Sleep Foundation, sleep disparities exist across racial groups; that is, people of color are disproportionally affected by poor sleep conditions and disorders. Why do those sleep disparities exist? Research cites a number of factors—the healthcare system, educational and occupational opportunities, neighborhood conditions, and chronic stress—all of which can interfere with people of color's ability to sleep well and therefore to live well.

Does experiencing racism itself lead to problems falling asleep? Yes, according to a study published in Sleep; indeed, the research found that people of color who experience discrimination and chronic stress struggle to sleep well.

    Is It Possible to Achieve Sleep Equity?

    In Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, researcher Matthew Walker ‎argued that sleep remains the least understood facet of our life, compared to other comparable activities such as eating, drinking, and reproducing. “Why do we sleep and why is sleep deprivation associated with devastating health consequences?” is a question that has long ailed scientists. Nonetheless, Walker outlined strategies individuals can use to get better sleep—including establishing a sleep routine; avoiding caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol before bedtime; and keeping one's bedroom dark, cool, and clean.

    As these tips suggest, sleep is in many ways an intimate and personal act. But it is also influenced by large social structures. If the person is living in a noisy neighborhood, works multiple jobs, or is stressed due to chronic poverty, then it's highly possible that they simply cannot practice the tips that Walker shared. Therefore, part of addressing sleep disparities is to address the systematic structure of our overall society.

    Humans exist in an ecosystem that we cannot operate independently of. We are influenced by our skin color, where we live, and with whom we interact—basically, anyone on our radar of daily operations affects our daily activities, including our ability to sleep well, which is then associated with our ability to function well in life, as the research cited by Walker and countless others demonstrates.

    As we strive to achieve an equitable society, sleep should become a growing area of interest, in part because it is a daily activity that we should spend a third of our time doing. Yet we often pay little attention to it—to the detriment of our health as individuals and as a society.

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