What is the Connection Between Racism and Sleep?

This Black History Month, we’re talking about sleep equity and how it relates to Black Americans. We defined sleep equity and sleep disparities, now let’s talk about the connection between racism and sleep.

Racist Systems Affect Sleep

A growing body of research shows that people from minoritized racial and ethnic groups are at higher risk for insufficient, poor-quality sleep than non-Hispanic white people. There is also evidence that people from these groups are more likely to have sleep disorders, but are less likely to be screened, diagnosed, and treated for conditions such as sleep apnea.

These disparities are rooted in current and historical race-based injustices that mean less access to health-promoting resources such as preventive medical care and more exposure to conditions that damage sleep and health, such as neighborhoods where high noise and light levels lead to difficulty sleeping, or shift work that disrupts sleep cycles. These chronic, entrenched social conditions create additional barriers to healthy sleep and lead to worse overall health outcomes.

The root cause of sleep and health disparities overall is racism.”

– Dr. Dayna Johnson via Sleep Foundation

Racist Interactions Affect Sleep

In addition to systemic, institutionalized inequities, interpersonal experiences of racism and discrimination contribute to sleep disparities.

In an interview on The Snooze Button podcast, Dr. Dayna Johnson explains, “When you encounter discrimination or experience an act of racism, you have a physiologic response, a stress response, which can affect your sleep. When we sleep, there are many things that happen that are important for our health. In populations such as African-Americans who are consistently encountering discrimination and racism, they’re regularly experiencing this stress at a high level, and then consistently have disruptions to sleep, which interrupt these other health factors. And so it’s a linear effect. One thing happens and then another, and it affects your health overall.” One study suggests that even the anticipation of experiencing racism may be a unique source of chronic stress that causes more sleep difficulties for Black people. 

Racism impacts sleep in less readily apparent ways, too. Dr. Johnson and her colleagues have found that instead of improving sleep as would be expected, higher education and income levels are actually associated with worse sleep for Black Americans, possibly due to the stress of high-level achievement that isn’t supported by institutions and the need to work harder to “prove” one belongs.

“I’m a college professor and also an African-American woman, and I’m regularly in environments where I am the minority,” says Dr. Johnson. “When you’re in these positions and you’re continually working harder, it takes a toll on your body. This all starts with your social experiences because of your race.” 

Looking Towards the Future

Dr. Johnson is hopeful that conversations about race and racism in America will lead to better understanding of the factors impacting sleep and overall health for BIPOC and other minoritized communities. “I think this is a good time in society because people are listening and acknowledging what’s been happening. If we realize how poor sleep disproportionately affects certain populations and there are things we can do to address that, it’s our responsibility to do so. Having optimal health should not be based on your race.”

Addressing sleep health disparities is a guiding principle of Project Sleep’s advocacy program. Read our commitment to social justice and sleep health equity here.

About Dr. Dayna Johnson

Black woman smiling with shoulder-length hair in a black blazer and orange dress shirt. Dr. Dayna Johnson: sleep health disparities expert.

Dr. Dayna Johnson, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Her research has uncovered much about the social contributors to racial and gender disparities in sleep by assessing the effects of social, household-level and neighborhood-level factors in correlation with insufficient sleep.

During Black History Month 2022, Project Sleep featured Dr. Johnson in the Sleep Leaders series. Read Dr. Johnson’s profile here.

Your Environment & Sleep Disparities Podcast

When talking about creating a healthy sleep environment, we often assume that things like light, temperature, safety, and our sleep schedules are all within our personal control. In this episode, Dr. Dayna Johnson talks about important and under-discussed factors influencing people’s ability to get a good night’s sleep and how policies can shape our individual behaviors, sleep, and overall health.

Sleep, Race, & Health Disparities Podcast

To learn about sleep disparities research and innovative approaches to improving sleep equity, listen to Sleep, Race, & Health Disparities – Sleep Insights Series Ep. 2 of The Project Sleep Podcast. In this episode, Dr. Michael Grandner provides an overview of sleep health disparities research, and Dr. Carmela Alcántara highlights a community engagement sleep intervention in the Spanish-speaking LatinX population.

During previous year’s Black History Month celebrations, we highlighted incredible accomplishments and contributions of Black Americans from across the sleep field—from scientists to advocates.

This year, Project Sleep is exploring the topic of sleep equity and how it affects Black Americans. Please join us by learning about and raising awareness of sleep equity!

Black History Month is not only a time for recognition, but also an opportunity to reflect on progress yet to be made and to reaffirm our commitment to social justice and equity. Please stay tuned for upcoming opportunities to contact your Members of Congress to help advance our sleep health disparities policy recommendations.

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