The Color Of Your Skin Could Influence How Much Sleep You Get

Discrimination and stress can take a toll on sleep.
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Black Americans fare worse than white Americans on nearly every metric of health, and dishearteningly, we have another disparity to add to the list: disordered sleep.

Black Americans are five times more likely to suffer from short sleep duration than white Americans, meaning they slept for six hours or fewer each night, according to a study published in the journal Sleep in June. The study analyzed data from 6,000 participants in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis, and tellingly, the finding held true even after being adjusted for sex, age, study site and body mass index.

Six hours of sleep per night is considerably less sleep than experts say we need. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults sleep for seven to nine hours each night, or risk adverse consequences of insufficient sleep including a higher risk for hypertension, diabetes, depression, obesity and reduced quality of life.

"The high prevalence of short sleep duration among blacks compared to whites may be partly due to a variety of stresses and social and environmental challenges many blacks experience," study author Dr. Xiaoli Chen of the Harvard School of Public Health told The Huffington Post.

Chen cited social and emotional stress associated with family and job demands, financial stress, and discrimination as factors that might negatively impact sleep.

While previous studies have illustrated the gap in sleep duration between black and white Americans, the overlap between race and sleep is a relatively new area of research, according to The Atlantic.

Black Americans weren't the only minority group suffering from poor sleep. Chen and her colleagues were surprised to find that a full 39 percent of Chinese-American participants suffered from sleep apnea, a serious sleep disorder that often goes undiagnosed. The finding was particularly noteworthy because although sleep apnea is often linked to obesity, Chinese-Americans had the lowest prevalence of obesity among any group.

In addition, Chinese-American participants were 2.3 times more likely to get short sleep as white participants. Hispanic participants were 1.8 times more likely than white participants to get short sleep. (Inexplicably, the data set researchers used singled out Chinese-Americans among Asians, but grouped Hispanics together.)

Race isn’t the only factor that affects who is getting high-quality sleep and who isn’t. Where you live, how much money you make, and even where you work can all impact sleep. While the study didn't examine socioeconomic differences between study participants, previous research has shown that low-wage and shift workers have long born the health burden of sleep inequality in America, which is, at its core, a public health issue.

"Individuals with lower socioeconomic status (i.e., less education, unemployed) are more likely to have inappropriate sleep duration and poorer sleep quality," Lauren Hale, an editor of the journal Sleep Health, told Fast Company in March.

In other words, public health officials' sleep recommendations will likely fall on deaf ears, since for many Americans, getting good sleep is not a personal choice.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Dr. Xiaoli Chen's university affiliation. Chen is employed by the Harvard School of Public Health, not the University of Minnesota.

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