South Korea: Why So Many Struggle to Sleep

Health News World

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

South Korea is one of the most sleep deprived nations on earth, and it has taken a massive toll on its population. 

Ji-Eun began having trouble sleeping when her office hours became so gruelling she couldn’t relax any longer.

On average she worked from 07:00 until around 22:00 but on particularly busy days, the 29-year-old public relations officer would find herself in the office until three in the morning.

Her boss often called in the middle of the night, requesting something be done right away.

“It was almost like I forgot how to relax,” she says.

At the Dream Sleep Clinic in the glitzy Gangnam district of Seoul, Dr Ji-hyeon Lee, a psychiatrist specialising in sleep, says she often sees clients who take up to 20 sleeping pills a night.

“It usually takes time to fall asleep, but Koreans want to sleep real quick and so they take medication,” she says.

Addiction to sleep medication is a national epidemic. There are no official statistics but it is estimated 100,000 Koreans are addicted to sleeping pills.

When they still can’t sleep they often resort to drinking alcohol on top of the medication – with dangerous consequences.

People sleep walk. They go to the refrigerator and eat a lot of things unconsciously, including uncooked food,” Dr Lee says. ”There were even cases of car accidents in the centre of Seoul caused by a sleepwalking patient.”

Dr Lee is used to seeing chronic insomniacs suffering from what is known as hypo-arousal. Some of her patients tell her it has been decades since they have slept for more than a few hours a night.

”They cry [but] still hold a single thread of hope [when they come here]. It’s a really sad situation,” she says.

Overworked, stressed out and sleep deprived

South Korea is one of the most sleep deprived nations on earth. It also has the highest suicide rate among developed nations, the highest consumption of hard liquor and a huge number of people on antidepressants.

There are historic reasons for these statistics.

In just a few decades the country has gone from being one of the poorest countries on earth to one of the world’s most technologically advanced nations. It also wields considerable soft power, with its growing influence on pop culture.

Nations with a similar trajectory, like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, could tap into their natural resources, but Korea has no such hidden wealth. It transformed itself through the sheer dedication of a population driven by a collective nationalism pushing them to work harder and faster.

At the Dream Sleep Clinic in the glitzy Gangnam district of Seoul, Dr Ji-hyeon Lee, a psychiatrist specialising in sleep, says she often sees clients who take up to 20 sleeping pills a night.

“It usually takes time to fall asleep, but Koreans want to sleep real quick and so they take medication,” she says.

Addiction to sleep medication is a national epidemic. There are no official statistics but it is estimated 100,000 Koreans are addicted to sleeping pills.

When they still can’t sleep they often resort to drinking alcohol on top of the medication – with dangerous consequences.