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Health

What do sleep, poverty and health have in common?

Flickr: Richard Yeh / WNYC

Have you ever stayed up all night? Or slept for only one or two hours? Maybe you got sick days later or couldn't focus at school or work. That's because sleep, and health are very much related. Sleep and poverty have their own complicated relationship as well. 

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If you answered no then I want to know your secret. If you answered yes, then welcome to the club, and know it’s because sleep and health are closely related.

According to a study from the World Bank, sleep may be the elephant in the room when it comes to poverty and health risks. This is because sleep and health have a lot more to do with poverty than you might think. It’s a complicated relationship, and research on the links between all three are still developing, but evidence is growing on the importance of getting your Zzzs.

What are the risks associated with lack of sleep?

When it comes to poverty and sleep, it’s kind of a chicken and egg type situation. First, research is somewhat lacking. But some research out there shows that the diseases related to poverty are often the same diseases associated with lack of sleep.

For example, shorter sleep time is associated with Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular, disease according to the CDC. Both are also associated with diet and exercise but sleep fits into the equation as well and is often overlooked.

How can sleep cause diabetes and heart disease?

When humans sleep, the body recharges. All the way down to the smallest level, cells and systems in the body perform important jobs during stages of sleep. Shorter sleep time can mess with hormones that regulate glucose and control appetite according to this study. Which means that over time less sleep can lead to obesity as well as Type 2 diabetes, and even cardiovascular disease.

When your body is unable to recover from a hard day, it gradually wears down and becomes less capable of dealing with everyday activities and stresses. Consequently, it becomes more prone to disease and other problems.

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Sleep does a lot more than keep you pretty. Have you ever heard that women live longer than men? I’ve always thought this myth to based on the assumption that men make and take more “risks.” But this study shows that women also sleep 13 minutes longer than men, which might have something to do with health.

So how is this related to poverty?

People who sleep less earn less. In fact, one study found that one more hour of sleep per night can lead to a 16 percent higher salary annually in the US(about $6,000). This is huge evidence that sleep has a major role in explaining income gaps in society!

This makes sense when you think about it. Poor people tend to face more stress in their daily lives; stress leads to poor quality of sleep; poor quality of sleep compromises a person’s ability to get through their day, which leads to more stress, which makes this cycle even worse. When you throw the health problems into the mix, this becomes a toxic recipe for hard-to-escape poverty.

There are even sleep disparities between race and ethnicity in the US. This was a major point in the podcast, and the New York Times mentions here that Black middle-income families live in low-income neighborhoods which can be much harder to get “good sleep hygiene” in. And Black and Hispanic men and women are over 10 percent more likely to report falling asleep during the day than White men and women. This is yet another lense to view the expanding link between sleep and poverty.

In addition, children who sleep less not only have a greater risk of obesity but also have lower cognitive ability and perform worse in school, according to this study. With this in mind, it’s not that much of a stretch to connect childhood sleep deprivation to adult poverty. The negative effects of lack of sleep affects people living in poverty, and low-income households the most. As research on the importance of sleep in health becomes more apparent the poverty factor cannot be pushed aside.

So how do you improve duration and quality of sleep to prevent these problems?

The CDC recommends having good “sleep hygiene,” meaning making sure you go to bed at the same time, in a quiet comfortable place and avoid alcohol and caffeine, and "screen time" before sleep. But not everyone can take these measures all the time. In low socioeconomic communities achieving the proper “sleep hygiene” is a challenge.

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If you are someone who has ever had trouble sleeping, it’s not hard to imagine why living in poverty and not getting enough sleep are connected. Housing in low-income neighborhoods can have high levels of noise, violence and safety issues. And for the 1.2 million people living on less than $1.50 a day, sleeping conditions can be unpredictable as they scramble to take care of other necessities.

Being aware that sleep is an important factor to include in ethnographic studies evaluating poverty is a good start. And health organizations like the CDC, the National Sleep Foundation, and WHO are beginning to make sleep a larger priority in health recommendations and research.

The CDC claims “insufficient sleep is a public health problem.”

The National Sleep Foundation came out with new suggested hours for sleep duration based on age category.

WHO mentions here, how detrimental noise pollution is to health for children and adults, especially for residents living in “less affluent” neighborhoods who cannot afford the quieter noise levels of more expensive residential areas.

Sleep has economic, social, and medicinal consequences for society.  Structuring living environments, labor, and education around this reality is key to improving lives around the globe.

In the past, research often focused on diseases first and how sleep was affected second, but there is a shift in medicine looking at more subtle factors such as how sleep affects income, health and many other areas that determine quality of life.

Before the world can fully tackle poverty, it has to better understand how sleep fits into the puzzle.

You can help create a healthier global society by going to TAKE ACTION NOW to support health care for all.