Hey, Wellness Warriors, how have you been sleeping lately? Many things keep us from getting a good, healthy night’s sleep, yet it’s key to our longevity. Last year, I posted a couple of blogs about the importance of sleep—including how vital it is for your brain’s health and tips for improving your sleep.
I’d like to take the next few weeks and address a few other questions about sleep.
The hours registered on your bedside clock only tell you how many hours you were in bed, not the actual quality or quantity of your deep sleep. These are the questions I ask my friends, my colleagues, and the families I meet at our communities when they “wake up” and start to worry about their sleep:
- Do you often wake up tired, with a bad headache, and have to drag yourself around during the day?
- Do you get up in the middle of the night, disoriented and confused?
- Does your significant other complain about your snoring and gasping for breath during the night?
- Are you suddenly experiencing fatigue all day long, feelings of being out of breath, or other signs and symptoms of heart disease? (Don’t delay seeing your doctor or going to the emergency room if you’re experiencing pain.)
- Are you suffering from irritability, worry, anxiety, depression, recurring negative thoughts and ruminations you can’t stop, or lack of motivation?
- Are you dealing with weight gain issues, diabetes or prediabetes, or food cravings and bingeing that could be triggered by the stress hormone cortisol (which sleep helps control)?
- Are you worried about being less productive and effective, scared about increasing “senior moments” and mental gaps like forgetfulness, poor concentration, poor decisions, or carelessness?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might need help developing your sleep habits for better health.
The Effects of Sleep Debt
We know that every year, an estimated 40 million Americans suffer from a chronic sleep disorder. The most common ones are insomnia, where you have trouble falling or staying asleep (or both), and sleep apnea, a condition of compromised breathing, which results in diminished oxygen being supplied to your brain. (You’ll learn more about that in an upcoming blog.)
Not getting enough sleep affects your body in several ways.
- It weakens your immune system, raising the risk of infection, viruses, and some types of cancer.
- Your body’s ability to metabolize glucose decreases, causing insulin sensitivity, making you more vulnerable to diabetes.
- Your body decreases its leptin (a hormone that helps to regulate energy balance by inhibiting hunger, which in turn diminishes fat storage) and increases its ghrelin (a hormone that stimulates appetite, increases food intake and promotes fat storage).
One study of more than 83,000 healthy American men and women in midlife (age 51 through 72) looked at their self-reported sleep and weight changes over an average of 7.5 years. A recent NIH-AARP diet and health study investigating sleep duration, weight change, and obesity found that those who slept less than five hours a night had a 40% higher risk of becoming obese than those who slept seven to eight hours a night.
In addition to shortening your life, sleep deprivation is both dangerous and debilitating. It leads to slow reaction times, irritability, and inattention. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that sleep-deprived drivers cause 1 million motor vehicle accidents and at least 1,500 fatal crashes per year.
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If you do shift work or have a work schedule that challenges your ability to maintain a healthy sleep schedule—something that is becoming more common in our 24-7 kind of world—you’re at real risk for health problems and will need to work extra hard to get enough sleep. Some 22 million Americans are affected in this way. This includes people working in traditional trades of law enforcement, health care, manufacturing, retail, information technology, media, as well as anyone who travels for business or has a long commute, requiring them to start their day early in the morning. Shift work, in particular, makes it extremely difficult to get enough consistent deep sleep and to have circadian rhythms that enhance health and peak performance.
Anxiety, depression, and worry are exquisitely connected to lack of sleep and to sleep disorders. A cycle of worry and negative thoughts can keep someone awake all night. Negative, obsessive thinking and a sense of not having control of your thoughts can feed on itself, and soon you are worrying about worrying, reinforcing the rumination.
People who get less sleep and go to bed very late often experience more negative thoughts than people who have more regular sleep cycles and get to bed earlier. Researchers Meredith Coles, Ph.D., and Jacob Nota, Ph.D., of Binghamton University of the State University of New York suggest that helping people get to sleep at the right time, much earlier in the night, could have a direct positive impact in preventing, as well as improving episodes, of depression and anxiety.
For tips on improving the quality and quantity of your sleep, read, “How’d You Sleep Last Night? 9 Steps for Better Sleep.” Take the tips one or two at a time, and watch your sleep improve. Next time, I’ll address a question I’m frequently asked: Do naps really help?
Until then, Wellness Warriors, Live Well, Live Long!