A Whole9 guest post by Dr Sult, medical doctor, medical educator, inspirational speaker & the author of Just Be Well: A Book For Seekers of Vibrant Health.
Sleep. Our bodies crave it, but most of us don’t get as much of it as we need. The average adult needs seven to eight hours of sleep per night, but according to a 2013 Gallup poll, 40 percent of Americans get less than that. That’s over 125 million people operating in a sleep deficit, with nearly half of them experiencing chronic sleep problems.
Many of us underestimate the body’s need for sleep, especially since we’re all so busy. With so much to be done with work, family and personal endeavors, we feel the pressure of getting it all done within sixteen hours a day. So we reduce our sleep time to fit more activities in.
But sleep is more than an indulgence. Our bodies need it, and when we chronically short-change ourselves of sleep, it shows up in our health.
Here are some important health reasons to get enough sleep.
- The body uses sleep as a time to repair cells. One study found that a sleeping brain produced cells that repair and grow myelin, the fatty tissue that surrounds nerve cells and gets damaged in diseases like multiple sclerosis.
- Lack of sleep can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. Even one night of inadequate sleep can increase hypertension in those who already have high blood pressure. That increased level can last throughout the day.
- Lack of sleep puts you at higher risk of traffic accidents, and sleepy-driver crashes are more likely to be serious.
- Long-term sleep deprivation is linked to depression. According to the National Sleep Foundation, lack of sleep can lead to depression and anxiety. On the other hand, depression can also lead to insomnia. Without intervention, this can become a difficult cycle to interrupt.
- Lack of sleep increases risk of obesity, because sleep deprivation can cause the body to produce less leptin, a hormone that reduces appetite. Lack of sleep can also cause the body to produce more ghrelin, a hunger-stimulating hormone.
- People who don’t get enough sleep are more vulnerable to infections. One experiment demonstrated that people who slept less than seven hours a night were more likely to develop symptoms of a cold than those who got eight hours.
- Lack of sleep increases the risk of diabetes. Sleep disrupts the way the body regulates and processes sugar, which can affect insulin sensitivity and glucose levels.
- Lack of sleep affects memory. A recent study showed that during sleep, the brain cells create new connections, or synapses, which can impact memory and learning.
What Kind of Sleep Do You Need?
Although we have guidelines on the amount of sleep we need (in addition to adults needing seven to eight hours, teens needing nine hours and school-aged children needing ten hours), some experts also say there is no magic number that determines every individual’s needs.
What’s more important, they say, is the kind of the sleep we get. The Sleep Foundation says to focus on basal sleep need and sleep debt. Basal sleep need is the amount needed for optimal performance. When we don’t get enough sleep regularly, we create a sleep debt. Over time, this debt leads to increased risks of illnesses mentioned earlier.
What Happens While You Sleep?
Researchers used to think that when we slept, both the brain and the body were inactive. Now we know better. When we sleep, we go through four to five sleep cycles, each lasting about 90 minutes. Each cycle contains four phases: three phases of non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) and one phase of Rapid Eye Movement (REM). During these phases, the brain is active even as the body rests. As a result, body temperature decreases, conserving energy. Heart rate and blood pressure decrease and the body releases growth hormones that help repair cells throughout the body.
Recovering from Your Sleep Debt
At some point, we all have to make do without enough sleep. A sick child, a last-minute report, or a nightmare can all cause us to borrow from our sleep time for a night or two. But the key to avoid long-term health risks from a continued sleep deficit is to intentionally repay that debt as soon as possible.
First, make it easy to fall and stay asleep:
- Keep your bedroom reserved only for sleep or sex. This simple fix helps you psychologically associate your bedroom as a restful place, and not a place for work or stress.
- Note the temperature of your bedroom. Too high, and it may be difficult to fall asleep. Too low, and you’ll wake up cold. Experts suggest keeping your room cool, particularly for falling asleep, but keep it comfortable as your body temperature drops during sleep.
- Keep the computers, tablets, phones and other electronics in another room. Studies indicate that nighttime exposure to the artificial light from these devices interrupts the production of melatonin, a hormone that is produced when it is dark, and helps regulate and encourage sleep.
- Avoid caffeine later in the day. It takes six hours for half of caffeine’s stimulating effects to be eliminated, so that afternoon cup of java can have long-lasting effects on the quality of sleep.
- Avoid alcohol late in the day. Although alcohol may help people fall asleep more quickly and deeply, it decreases REM sleep, particularly during the later part of the night. So while people may drop off to sleep quickly, they’ll also wake up or feel restless during the night.
- Get regular exercise. Some experts suggest exercising at least three hours before bedtime to allow your temperature, which elevates during exertion, to fall in preparation for sleep. Others, however, say that unless you have a sleep disorder, that exercising at any time is better for sleep than not exercising at all. A Sleep Foundation survey comparing exercisers and non-exercisers found that more active people reported sleeping better than those who were inactive.
Second, The Harvard Medical School Guide to a Good Night’s Sleep offers the following tip on recovering missed sleep:
- If you missed 10 hours over a week, add three or four extra sleep hours on the weekend, then one or two each night the following week until you’re caught up.
- If you have a chronic sleep debt, it may take several weeks to recoup the damage. Plan a vacation with a light agenda. Go to bed at a regular time, but don’t set an alarm to get up; just wake naturally. You may sleep long hours initially, but eventually, that will regulate as you recover.
For a multitude of reasons, sleep is essential for your health. Instead of treating it like a nice-to-have, treat the practice of getting enough quality sleep as a priority for your well-being.
If you’re still having problems getting or staying asleep, you may want to consult with your doctor for a diagnosis and additional options to help you get a good night’s sleep.
Tom Sult is a medical doctor, medical educator, inspirational speaker & the author of Just Be Well: A Book For Seekers of Vibrant Health. Board-certified in family medicine & integrative holistic medicine, Tom is on faculty with the Institute for Functional Medicine and maintains a private practice in Willmar, MN. Join Tom’s crusade to change the way doctors treat their patients at www.justbewell.info. For more information on Tom’s practice please visit the 3rd Opinion website.
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