Monday, November 8, 2010

Make sleep a priority for good health.

Ahhhhh, the luxury of an extra hour of sleep. This happy event occurred because US Daylight Savings Time ended yesterday and we woke to turn our clocks back. It is such a great feeling to gain this extra hour. Unfortunately, it can't make up for months of lack of sleep.  Evidently, we're not the only sleep deprived nation. According to findings from a 2005 around the world survey of 35,327 people in Austria, Belgium, Brazil, China, Germany, Japan, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain and South Africa, the Japanese slept the least and the Portuguese slept the most. However, the study revealed that although people in Portugal spent more time sleeping, they reported the most sleep disturbances (1).  It turns out that when it comes to sleep, quality and quantity are equally important. Since most of us are lacking in one or both, it's probably safe to say that we are globally sleep deficient.

It seems sleep has become a victim of the current 24/7 mindset, and we are only just beginning to understand the health consequences. Scientific evidence suggests that erratic sleep or lack of sleep increases our risk for a number of diseases, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity. In addition, although scientists are only just beginning to understand the interactions between sleep and the immune system, they have found that decreased sleep affects our bodies ability to fight infection (3).  Even more startling is the link between lack of sleep and a shortened life expectancy (2). According to researchers at Standford University, "sleep is the most important predictor of how long you will live, perhaps even more important than whether you smoke, exercise or have high blood pressure" (3). That's a pretty strong statement.

I was surprised to learn that a lack of sleep could impact our health so profoundly. How could skipping a few zzz's cause this to happen? Well, in the case of heart health, it seems that researchers found sleep deprivation elevated levels of an inflammatory marker for heart disease called C-reactive protein (5, 6). One study conducted at Harvard University over a ten year span found that "sleeping six hours a night was associated with an 18% greater risk of heart attack," whereas, sleeping 5 hours a night upped the risk to 40% (4). Elevated C-reactive protein levels have also been linked to other health concerns like high blood pressure, diabetes and even cancer (5). If you're interested in discovering more about the emerging science on inflammation and its link to cancer you can read more here

If you've been dieting and exercising and are still frustrated with stubborn weight loss you might consider your sleep. There's a wealth of scientific evidence showing that the two most common risk factors for obesity are overeating and inactivity, but experts are now including lack of sleep as well. Interestingly, recent research has revealed that people "who habitually sleep less than 6 hours per night are much more likely to have higher than average body mass index (BMI)" compared with people who sleep 8 hours (4). It seems that a lack of sleep causes changes in the levels of a few hormones that regulate corresponding body functions like appetite and metabolism. When we sleep less the body produces less leptin, an appetite suppressant and more cortisol, a stress hormone that effects the metabolism of proteins, carbohydrates and fats (8). In addition, levels of  insulin, a glucose regulating hormone, and grehlin, an appetite stimulant hormone, are also raised (8). These effects all combine to create a pro weight gain state.

Not only is lack of sleep a health concern, but poor quality of sleep is as well. The around the world study mentioned in the first paragraph found that 1 in 4 people felt they did not sleep well (1). Experts suspect that the numbers of people sleeping poorly are even higher because most people don't recognize what makes up a night of good, quality sleep. Perhaps adding to the issue of quality sleep is the effect aging may have on  changing sleep patterns. You can find more information about that here. For now, let's take a look at some steps to make quality sleep more possible. Here are the top 10 tips from the Mayo Clinic:
  1. Stick to a sleep schedule, even on weekends.
  2. Don't eat or drink large amounts before bedtime.
  3. Avoid nicotine, caffeine and alcohol in the evening (caffeine limited as much as 8 hours before bedtime).
  4. Regular aerobic exercise can help you fall asleep, but don't exercise right before bed.
  5. Make your bedroom environment perfect for sleep. Keep it cool, quiet and dark. If it can't be quiet try white noise.
  6. Get your primary sleep at night. If you work nights keep your windows darkened.This helps set your body clock and establish sleeping patterns.
  7. Choose a comfortable mattress and pillow.
  8. Start a relaxing bedtime routine.
  9. If you can't fall asleep within 15-20 minutes try getting up and doing something calming. Then return to bed, but try not to stress about falling asleep as this will only keep you from doing so.
  10. Use sleeping pills as a last resort (10).
You can find a helpful video, along with other information ranging from adopting healthy sleep habits to when to seek treatment to improve your sleep on the Harvard Medical School's Division of Sleep Medicine Site.

Although it's no guarantee, clearly the quality and quantity of sleep we get is important to our health. Why not try to schedule a little extra sleep time for yourself? Our 24/7 world may seem to suggest that sleep is a guilty luxury, but there's absolutely nothing wrong with giving yourself the gift of being well-rested. Sweet dreams. 

PS - This week is National Drowsy Driving Prevention Week.  Check out the National Sleep Foundation's videos and FAQ sheets found here.   

1) Soldatos, C.R., Allaert, F.A., Ohta, T. and Dikeos, D.G. How do individuals sleep around the world? Results from a single-day survey in ten countries. Sleep Medicine, 6:5-13, 2005.


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