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Did you know that your race could determine the amount of sleep you get each night?
The science of sleeping is still a bit of mystery. It’s only been since the 1950s that scientists discovered that our brains remain active while we’re asleep.
Over the years, they’ve also been able to determine the stages of sleep we go through each night, and what the function of each phase is.
Doctors will tell you with confidence that not getting enough rest can lead to an assortment of medical conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and even death.
But, what the medical profession is still trying to figure out is why there’s such a wide discrepancy among Caucasians, African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians about the quantity and quality of rest each of us gets. In this article, we’ll review the different theories that could potentially explain the connection between race and sleep disorders.
Understanding the Link Between Race and Sleep
A five-year study done at the University of California, San Diego, measured the amount of time that African American and Caucasian individuals spent sleeping, and how much of those hours were in SWS or slow-wave sleep. SWS is a deep phase of our sleeping cycle where our brain processes the information and data we received during the day, and our body restores and repairs itself.
The study found that while Caucasians spent about 20% of the night in SWS, African Americans only spent about 15% of their shuteye hours in this stage.
Subsequent studies have also compared Hispanics and Asians; and while their rest periods are slightly more extended than what African Americans get, it still falls somewhat behind Caucasian sleeping patterns.
The first theory was that there was an income disparity that caused the gap since Caucasians are typically the highest earners. However, even after removing income, the differences remained. Researchers also took into account other factors such as age, weight, health, and behaviors like smoking and drinking. Still, they couldn’t account for the fact that Caucasians spend, on average, 7.4 hours asleep per night, while African Americans report only being asleep for 6.8.
One hypothesis that’s gaining momentum is that discriminatory stress is affecting people’s ability to get a quality night of rest. The idea is that if a African American person, regardless of income or socio-economic status, feels that they were subjected to discrimination earlier in the day, they’re more likely to have difficulty relaxing at night, and it could even affect their subconscious while they’re resting.
However, all races experience stress on a daily basis, not just discrimination. While a correlation has been shown between perceived discrimination and an overall lack of shuteye, there’s no evidence to confirm that this explanation is the most accurate.
Different Sleeping Habits by Race
Cultural differences could also explain in part the connection between race and bedtime habits. For example, ten percent of African Americans and Hispanics report having sex every night before bed, while only four percent of Caucasians and one percent of Asians can claim the same.
Given that having sex before bed is bound to make less time for being asleep, this practice could explain some of the disparity.
African Americans also report praying before bed in more significant numbers than Caucasians and Asians, which is another potential explanation.
Again, researchers have a lot of work to do to prove which of these factors contributes most to differences in bedtime habits among race. Another idea presented has to do with cultural standards around bedtime. Caucasian families report stricter bedtimes than African American or Hispanic families. As children become adults, these ingrained habits could affect the way they view going to bed as well.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are there rare sleep disorders according to race?
Racial minorities are more likely to report having a disorder. The disorders include insomnia, sleep apnea, poor sleep quality, and daytime drowsiness.
Minorities, excluding Asians, also have higher incidences of obesity and heart disease. These observations make one question whether the disorders are causing the health conditions, or the health conditions contribute to these disorders. More work needs to be done to conclude definitively one way or the other.
What ethnicity has the most disturbed sleep?
The African American cohort tends to have the most disturbed sleeping patterns. In addition to the factors outlined above, another potential explanation could be in their neighborhoods and living situations. Despite the closing wage gap between the races, even wealthier and middle-class African American families are prone to live in noisier and threatening neighborhoods than their Caucasian counterparts.
What is the most common sleep disorder for Caucasians?
By far the most common disorder among Caucasians is insomnia. According to Dr. David Neubauer at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, the most common disorders go something like this: “insomnia, insomnia, insomnia, sleep apnea, insomnia, and then all the rest.”
Are there also differences in their sleep quality?
Yes, in the subjects studied there were both self-reported and scientifically observed differences in the quality of shuteye they got each night. For example, African Americans said that they didn’t feel like their bedtime was of adequate quality, and they also reported higher incidences of daytime drowsiness.
When studied in a lab, scientists observed that African American individuals spent only 15% of the night in SWS, while Caucasian individuals were in his phase of rest 20% of the time.
If you are one of the races that tend to get less rest per night than average, it’s important to look at what factors in your lifestyle could be contributing to imperfect bedtime habits. Many of them, like choosing when you go to bed, can be controlled.
If you live in a noisy environment and moving to a new house is not an option, you may want to explore the idea of making your bedroom quieter and more conducive to rest, either with noise-canceling headphones, a white noise machine or a fan to drown out external disruptions.
Author: Jill Thompson
I've been self-employed for almost four years and I would not change it for anything! I believe that anyone can achieve their goals with the right attitude and determination.
I'm an avid traveler (25+ countries and counting) that loves to meet new people doing amazing things.
When I'm not researching for the Sleep Advisor, you can find me reading, running, traveling, golfing, or meditating.
I wish you the very best on your journey!