Get More Sleep: How Lack of Sleep is Making Us Sick

 

It’s past midnight, the laundry isn’t finished, and you have a 7 a.m. meeting. It’s going to be another night without enough sleep.

Such is modern life. Nearly two-thirds of Americans admit they don’t get enough sleep during the night. And nearly 70 million American adults suffer from some sort of sleep disorder, according to the National Sleep Foundation. It seems we have forgotten how to sleep well.

“The average American is chronically sleep deprived,” says Dr. Meeta Singh, sleep medicine specialist at Henry Ford Health System.

We tend to link all sleep problems under the category of insomnia. But sleep deprivation means we’re spending too little time in bed – we go to bed too late, get up too early and often both, Dr. Singh explains. With insomnia, we go to bed but don’t sleep well.

Impacts Our Daily Lives

Adults typically need at least seven hours of sleep a night, Dr. Singh says. When we endure nights of not being able to sleep, our mental and physical health suffers. Here are some side effects of sleep deprivation:

Memories: Sleep is essential to help us remember new information because our brain stores and edits what we learned during the day. Too little sleep means the brain can’t do its work. Plus, if we’re sleepy during the day, we may not pay enough attention to learn that information in the first place.

Emotions: Sleep affects our judgment, creativity and problem-solving, so when we sleep well, we tend to function well.

By contrast, too little sleep makes us moody, emotional and quick-tempered, which can result in or worsen anxiety or depression. We make decisions based on emotion rather than logic and facts.

Safety: Sleep deprivation increases the risk of accidents and injuries because we’re too tired to be attentive. In fact, Dr. Singh says, accidents caused by drowsiness now outnumber those caused by alcohol.

Immune system: Losing sleep weakens our immune system, so we’re more likely to catch colds and less able to fight infections.  

Weight gain: With less sleep, our hunger increases, and we seek high-carbohydrate foods, which leads to weight gain.

Diabetes and heart disease: Reduced sleep impairs our glucose tolerance, which can lead to type 2 diabetes. Also, our blood pressure can increase, which can lead to inflammation and heart disease.

Sex drive: Too little sleep makes us less interested in sex.

A Risk of Earlier Death

Long-term sleep deprivation increases our risk of diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, arteriosclerosis and cancer. 

“Patients tell me they’ll have plenty of time to sleep when they’re dead,” Dr. Singh says. “I tell them if they don't sleep, that’s going to come sooner.”

Medical Help

If sleep is a regular problem for you, talk with your doctor to determine whether you have an underlying disorder. Conditions such as sleep apnea, asthma, heart problems or pain could be keeping you awake.

Your doctor might prescribe sleeping pills but, Dr. Singh says, that should be a temporary solution. A more permanent approach is cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI). A trained professional guides you toward healthy sleep habits that help you get to sleep and stay there.

Self-Help

Healthy sleep aligns with our circadian rhythm, our natural internal clock linked to sunrise and sunset. The more we follow that clock, the better we sleep, and the healthier we are. That means going to bed and getting up at the same time every day. Don’t change more than an hour, even on the weekends, Dr. Singh says. Other tips she recommends:

  • Exercise regularly, preferably early in the day.
  • Keep your bedroom quiet, dark and cool. Leave electronics in another room.
  • Begin to slow down by avoiding alcohol or heavy meals two to three hours before bedtime. Cut caffeine even earlier – by 2 p.m.
  • Nap if your schedule allows, but keep it to 20 to 30 minutes, and plan it between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., when your natural clock winds down. Too close to bedtime and you’ll have trouble sleeping.

Spring Forward, Fall Asleep

“In spring, we get one fewer hour of sleep. We’re already walking around with some sleep deprivation. Now, we’ve lost an hour of sleep. It makes it worse,” Dr. Meeta Singh says. That additional loss of sleep takes a serious toll:

  • Motor vehicle and workplace accidents surge to their highest rates in the week after “springing forward.”
  • The risk of heart attack increases in the morning of the change.

If you think you can catch up in the fall, Dr. Singh says it doesn’t work that way: “You get to sleep an extra hour, but even that is bad.” Most people, she says, go to bed later because they know they can sleep in. That means it’s rare to get extra sleep.

The fall change is worse for morning people, she says. “They still wake up early; it just takes them longer to adjust.”

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