Arianna Huffington and Cindi Leive pose a very significant challenge to this nation -- to get seven and a half hours of sleep just for a month. I applaud them for seeking a less stressed, happier universe that is full of clearer thinking, immune system-boosted humans. And let me offer additional dramatic incentives: you'll live longer, you'll be thinner and you'll have better sex!
Have I got your attention?
Sleep not only leads to healthier lives, but is also a barometer of how we are living our lives. Before I scare you with the dangers of insomnia and entice you with the benefits of slumber, let me even the playing field: I know full well the challenges of getting enough sleep. I was a sleep deprived resident back in medical school, and later a heart surgeon doing lots of transplants where a good night's sleep was a rare luxury. I also have four children and know all about those infant years when you find yourself searching for your bearings at 3 a.m. as crying blares from down the hall. I still keep a pretty packed schedule. Quite simply, I am passionate about life and love being awake because I don't want to miss anything! I expect you are too, and that's wonderful. But being passionate and busy with real responsibility also highlights the need to nurture your sleep allocation so you can both meet your obligations in peak form and enjoy life for many years to come.
Here are the facts: half of us don't get enough sleep as we mature, and that accelerates our aging. Studies have shown that the minimum amount is seven and a half hours per night for men and seven hours for women. And those need to be solid hours. You have to be snoozing about two and a half hours in a row before your sleep becomes truly restorative. In fact, people who sleep fewer than six hours a night have a 50 percent increased risk of viral infections and an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. Plus, lack of sleep is associated with mental decline and overeating (which leads to major aging conditions). If you get less sleep than you need, you increase your arterial aging and risk of heart attack.
In addition to those very serious risks, you will also be miserable. Everyone reading this knows that when you have to go through the rigors of a day on too little sleep it's a day that you can't wait to end. Life is too short and your loved ones deserve better from you.
Now how about this: if you did get enough sleep, you'd lose weight! You would actually eat less if you got more sleep and here is why: When you don't sleep enough, you stimulate the appetite centers of the brain so you crave sugar.
You would also have better sex if you got enough sleep! Not just because of the obvious reasons like you wouldn't be exhausted, but because many sex hormones are made during sleep, so you'll be helping your libido by getting enough ZZZ's. Also, you'd be "all there" mentally. Isn't that when sex is best?
So for those of you who don't make time because you don't define sleep as mission-critical, remember that the main way that our bodies make extra growth hormone is through snoozing. Since the levels of this hormone, which is required for youthful vitality, drops precipitously as we age, wise people carve out time for sleep. If you don't remember your head hitting the pillow, you are sleep deprived.
I know some of you readers are thinking that you understand this completely but have trouble sleeping and you wish you could have an easier time falling asleep. There are two fundamental reasons why you might be flailing at this basic human need.
First, medical reasons can hinder sleep including sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, chronic pains, and most importantly, anxiety. Many of us struggle with our thoughts churning around like a turbid river, and could benefit from simple (and safe) meditation techniques rather than the ubiquitiously prescribed sleeping pills ...
Second, many of us don't practice our sleep. Sounds like a bizarre concept. Like many bodily functions, our natural ability to sleep declines with maturity and without sound sleep hygiene, the healthy habit slips away. Sleep hygiene can restore normalcy in at least half of all American's who have trouble getting their seven hours.
Here are some practical tips to actually achieve better sleep:
• Evaluate your sleep hygiene. Avoid watching TV, eating, or working in bed. Make the bedroom a sanctuary for sleep. Keep the temperature a few degrees cooler than the rest of the house and hide bedroom clocks so you're not constantly checking the time as you try to fall asleep. Try sticking to a sleep schedule and limiting naps or daytime sleeping. Turn the lights down 30 minutes prior to bed time. This sends the pineal gland a message to start producing more of the sleepiness hormone melatonin that always helped our ancestors fall asleep naturally.
• Get active 30 minutes of exercise each day (at least five to six hours before bedtime) will help you get more restful sleep at night.
• Avoid triggers. Caffeine, alcohol and nicotine or large meals before bedtime can disrupt your ability to fall asleep and remain asleep throughout the night. Though many people use alcohol to get to sleep initially - alcohol actually compromises the quality of sleep you get overnight.
• Check your medication. Make sure they don't contain stimulants. Talk to your doctor about other options if you think your prescriptions are preventing you from getting good sleep.
If you can't fall asleep within 15 minutes, get out of bed and do some light activity. Getting your mind off sleep resets your system. Try a yoga pose, meditation, a chi-gong movement, or a short walk. If you wake up and can't seem to get back to sleep, music and meditation seem to work best.
Your body will thank you. Your outlook on life may just improve. You'll live longer. You'll be thinner. Sex will be better. People may enjoy being around you more and tell you that you look better. Do I need to keep going? Now go get some sleep!