Most of us are aware that a nutritious diet and regular physical activity are the cornerstones of a healthy life. But a third part of a wellness lifestyle that is often overlooked – or downright ignored – is sleep. A recent National Sleep Foundation survey found that a full 30 percent of Americans are sleeping less than 6 hours nightly, rather than the 7 to 9 hours most experts say we need – an average that has declined steadily in direct correlation with our transformation to a 24-hour society.
“Our culture contributes to our epidemic of sleeplessness,” said Terry Cralle, RN, MS, certified clinical sleep educator in Washington, D.C. “Perhaps we have misunderstood the physiological need for sleep as laziness. We have viewed it as a luxury and not a necessity. We brag about getting by on little sleep – or at least trying to,” she added.
While there are many theories regarding the function of sleep, there is no definitive answer as to what exact purpose it serves. Experts agree, though, that sleep is necessary to life and that it benefits many body systems. Here are just a few reasons you should aim for getting enough zzz’s
1. You’ll get fewer infections, said Aparajitha Verma, MD, Director of the Comprehensive Sleep Disorders Program at Houston Methodist Hospital and Assistant Professor at Weill Cornell Medical College. “Sleep helps with tissue repair and strengthens our immune defenses,” she explained. “If you’re sleep deprived, your immune system doesn’t function at optimum level.”
2. Your sports performance will improve, said Cralle. Studies from Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory at Standford University, she explained, have looked at the effect of sleep on athletic performance in a variety of sports, including swimming, football, basketball and golf. What was found? “Extra sleep over an extended period of time improves alertness and athletic performance,” she said.
3. Your heart will be healthier. Research shows that lack of sleep can elevate blood pressure and increase concentrations of C-reactive protein, a marker of heart disease risk. “There’s lots of data that sleep deprivation can contribute to cardiovascular disease, such as heart attacks and strokes,” said Dr. Verma.
4. You’ll be less likely to gain weight, said Robert Rosenberg, DO, board-certified sleep medicine specialist of Arizona. “The building of sleep debt, less than 6 hours a night, over a matter of days, produces excessive amounts of the appetite stimulating hormone Ghrelin and decreased amounts of the appetite suppressing hormone Leptin,” he said. “Is it any wonder that while sleep duration has dropped significantly since 1980, the incidence of obesity has doubled during this same period of time?”
5. You may get fewer headaches, according to the American Headache Society. Those who have sleep problems such as insomnia, including difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, or poor quality “non-restful” sleep, report increased frequency and severity of headaches. And sleep deprivation can even trigger migraines in those who suffer from this condition.
6. Your memory may be sharper, said Dr. Verma. Sleep, especially the deepest levels of sleep, she explained, appears to help with memory consolidation, which is the process of making memories accessible by creating a sort of a map or an index to the brain, so memory retrieval is possible when needed.
7. You’ll be nicer. You can probably remember a time when a bad night’s sleep resulted in a short temper or feelings of being overwhelmed. Research such as a recent University of Pennsylvania study has shown that even one night of poor sleep (about 4.5 hours total) left subjects feeling stressed, angry, sad or mentally exhausted. Once sufficient sleep was resumed, said the researchers, subjects showed dramatic improvement in mood.
8. You’re less likely to suffer an accident or injury. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, sleep loss and poor quality sleep can slow reaction time as much as driving drunk, and fatigue contributes to as many as 100,000 automobile accidents each year, particularly in those ages 25 and younger. Drowsiness is also a contributing factor in job-related accidents and injuries.
9. You’ll be more focused. Having trouble concentrating at work or school after a poor night’s sleep? Sleep deprivation often leaves us feeling unfocused, said Cralle. “It seems that several important housekeeping functions take place during sleep, such as flushing out mental debris that has accumulated during the course of the day,” she explained.
10. Your sex life will benefit. If you’ve lost that loving feeling, it may be because the hormone testosterone, an important part of libido in both men and women, decreases with sleep deprivation. According to researchers at the University of Chicago, those who sleep for less than five hours nightly for a period of time of a week or longer, have lower testosterone levels than those who get sufficient sleep.
Tips for Getting a Better Night’s Sleep
Sleep experts agree that there are certain tips that will enhance the likelihood of getting better quantity and quality of sleep at night. If you’ve tried all of these and are still having trouble sleeping for more than a few weeks, you may want to consult with a sleep specialist.
Establish a bedtime routine. “We all know the benefit of a bedtime routine for children,” said Terry Cralle, RN, MS, certified clinical sleep educator in Washington, D.C. “Adults need them, too. It’s important to relax and unwind prior to bedtime. Pre-sleep rituals, or bedtime routines, are very helpful to transition from wake to sleep.” Good bedtime routines may be a warm bath, a light snack or an interesting book. Avoid reading materials for school or your job, as they may be too stimulating. And turn off the electronics – including, phone, TV and computer – at least two hours before bedtime, so your brain can shut down, too.
Keep your sleep cycle consistent throughout the week, including during the weekend, recommended Robert Rosenberg, DO, board-certified sleep medicine specialist of Arizona. Going to bed at the same time each night – and waking up at the same time – regulates your body’s clock and may help you get to sleep and stay asleep.
Nix the naps if you’re prone to insomnia, advises the National Sleep Foundation. While a power nap may help you to get through the day, it may also interfere with your ability to sleep at night.
Use light to your advantage, said Dr. Rosenberg. Your body produces the hormone melatonin, a process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle by increasing production in the darkness to make you sleepy, and decreasing it in bright light to keep you awake. By keeping your bedroom dark in the evening before sleeping and exposing yourself to bright light in the morning, your melatonin production will be conducive to a good sleep-wake pattern.
HOW TO MAKE YOUR BEDROOM A SLEEP HAVEN
While it’s important to seek out a sleep specialist for prolonged or severe sleeping problems, a milder issue with sleep may be related to the way you set up your bedroom, said Jennifer Adams, sleep environmentalist and author of Bedrooms that Inspire. Adams, who develops sleep systems for hotels and homes, said that the first order of business is to look at color and patterns. “You want to avoid stimulating patterns and colors in bedding, drapery, walls and art work,” she explained. “Avoid primary colors like red, cobalt blue and emerald green, and stick with soothing colors like pale ivory, sage, lavender and tranquil blue – and soft textures.”
A comfortable mattress is crucial, she added, and should be replaced regularly (many sleep experts suggest every 7 to 8 years). And if you have a mattress that seems to hold in the heat and keep you awake, look for some of the cooling gel technology available in mattress covers and pillows to get some relief.
Window treatments should control for both light and noise. “A lined fabric does a better job to reduce noise than plastic or wood,” said Adams.
One of the most important aspects of a peaceful sleep setting, she continued, is to reduce the clutter. “Clutter is overly stimulating in your bedroom, and it can make you feel guilty,” she advised. “The bedroom is not a place to store things or pile things up. Even if it doesn’t make you feel guilty or overstimulated, you’ll be breathing in all that dust.”
The final step? An ideal sleeping temperature, said Adams, (which is 60-67 degrees Fahrenheit), no electronics (TV, cell phones, iPads) – and some meditation tapes or soothing music.
By Linda Hepler, BSN, RN