yawning manA Gallup poll published late last year revealed what Americans think are the biggest health problems we face. To probably no one’s surprise, the top two dealt with costs and access. The third – thanks to incessant news coverage yet no immediate threat of an outbreak – was Ebola.

Other concerns that made Gallup’s list cropped up on other lists published around the same time: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, mental illness, cancer, Alzheimer’s and more. Yet one issue was strangely missing – a health concern that in fact underlies many of the other common problems.

Chronic sleep deprivation.

In our speedy, complicated, 24/7, high tech lives, it’s all too easy to believe we can “get by” on just 5 or 6 hours of sleep a night (or even less). If we’re exhausted during the week, we say we’ll just make up for it by sleeping late on the weekend. Yet as indulgent as a Sunday morning sleep-in can feel, sleep is anything but a luxury. Sufficient, quality sleep is as necessary for good health as nutritious food, exercise and all the rest.

Why Good Health Depends on Good Sleep

Once upon a time, doctors thought that the only negative effect of sleep deprivation was sleepiness during the day. Over the past couple decades, though, research has shown it has “wide-ranging effects” on the cardiovascular, endocrine, immune, and nervous systems. Specific health problems linked to chronic – meaning ongoing, not a once-in-a-while kind of thing – sleep loss include obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, anxiety and depression. Those who routinely get less than 6 or 7 hours of sleep each night have a higher risk of early death. According to some research, it’s even riskier than smoking.

And it’s not just a matter of not getting enough sleep but getting good quality, uninterrupted sleep that’s in tune with our bodies’ natural rhythms. Sleep researcher Dr. Frank Hu discussed some of his own research on this a while back on HuffPo in a passage worth quoting at length:

I recently co-authored a study with other researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School that looked at rotating night shift workers — a group of people whose work schedule puts them constantly at odds with their natural circadian sleep rhythms. This is the hormonal, light-sensitive rhythm that cycles within us, nudging us to sleep at nighttime and prodding us awake at sunrise. Our large study showed that women who worked rotating night shifts for three to nine years had a 20 percent increased risk for Type 2 diabetes. Women who did shift work for 10 to 19 years experienced a 40 percent increased risk. Women who did shift work for more than 20 years faced an even higher increased risk — 58 percent.

Our research has suggested that people who do shift work tend to smoke, eat unhealthy diets and exercise less. They also are more likely to experience sleep deprivation. Shift workers battle their circadian rhythms, which influences blood pressure, heart rates and blood sugar regulation. If disrupted by sleep deprivation, these functions can be impaired. That’s the reason why shift work has been associated with long-term increased risk of hypertension, diabetes, and even cardiovascular disease.

With a chronic lack of sleep, problems can easily keep compounding, throwing the whole body out of whack and putting a drag on health – physically, mentally and spiritually.

Simply, our bodies need to rest. They need time to repair and rejuvenate. In fact, some maintenance functions – tissue repair, protein synthesis and more – happen mainly or only during sleep. During sleep, toxins are flushed from the brain and memories are consolidated. And this renewal may only be just part of why we sleep.

Breaking the Cycle of “Sleep Debt”

If you’re running a “sleep deficit,” can you make it up? The jury still appears to be out. The latest research seems to suggest that you can make up some but not all of it. What you can do, though, is get back to your natural sleep cycle. Harvard affiliated sleep specialist Dr. Lawrence J. Epstein suggests three steps to breaking the cycle of sleep debt:

  1. Settle short-term debt. If you missed 10 hours of sleep over the course of a week, add three to four extra sleep hours on the weekend and an extra hour or two per night the following week until you have repaid the debt fully.
  2. Address a long-term debt. Plan a vacation with a light schedule and few obligations. Then, turn off the alarm clock and just sleep every night until you awake naturally.
  3. Avoid backsliding into a new debt cycle. Once you’ve determined how much sleep you really need, factor it into your daily schedule. Try to go to bed and get up at the same time every day — at the very least, on weekdays.

In fact, having regular sleep and wake times is one of the most important things you can do to improve both the quantity and quality of your sleep. Here are some others:

  • Avoid caffeine and other stimulants in the evening. Same goes for alcohol. Although it can make you feel sleepy at first, it does just the opposite as it metabolizes.
  • Make your bed a place for sleeping – not a place to watch TV, use your iPad, read or do other activities that tend to keep you awake. In general, the less screen time just before bed, the better.
  • Establish a relaxing bedtime routine. Opt for activities that will help prepare your mind and body for sleep, that will become cues that it’s time to sleep. There are some yogic and Ayurvedic practices that can be especially helpful.
  • Make sure you get good exposure to natural light during the day, to help keep your body’s circadian rhythms on the beat, so to speak.
  • Bedtime teas and supplements can be helpful. Look for teas with calming ingredients such as passionflower, lemongrass and chamomile. We especially like the Republic of Tea’s “get some zzz’s,” which also contains rooibos – a wonderful antioxidant – and valerian root, which makes it a little extra potent. Supplements such as melatonin and kava can be calming, while others, such as glycine, can help improve sleep quality.

In integrative medicine, we have a number of other natural supplements available, as well – plus acupuncture and, when appropriate, bio-identical hormones. The goal? Help support and deepen your sleep experience, and help pave the way for a refreshed and wakeful day!

Image by Bart


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