By Katrina Plyler for U.S. News
With any illness, injury or sniffle, you'll hear one common suggestion: Get plenty of rest. Whether we're nursing a broken bone or trying to recover from the flu, we are led to believe that adequate sleep will put us right on the path to recovery. But just how important is sleep, and what about those of us who can't seem to get quality sleep?
Lack of sleep is linked to several health concerns:
Colds, flu, viruses and infections. One of the first systems to be adversely affected by lack of quality sleep is immune function. When you're tired, you feel worn down -– and that's not just a feeling. Your body is using all energy reserves to fight off the viruses and exposure to germs that might not affect a person with a thriving immune system. Also, if you receive vaccines, the sleep-deprived are slow to respond to the immunity the vaccines are designed to build.
Heart disease. According to Donna Arand, clinical director of the Kettering Sleep Disorder Centers in Dayton, Ohio, lack of sleep causes an inflammatory response to the cardiovascular system. Rises in C-reactive protein due to impaired sleep are warning signs that the body is responding to a perceived injury, infection or disease. In this case, lack of sleep is that perceived threat that results in inflammation. Poor sleep also causes the body to produce more stress hormones, which may contribute to cardiovascular disease. Chronic stress coupled with lack of quality sleep causes double trouble for the heart, arteries and ventricles.
Diabetes. In the past decade, there has been growing evidence that too little sleep can affect hormones and metabolism in ways that promote diabetes. According to a study published in the Lancet in 1999, healthy men with a week of impaired sleep –- only four hours a night –- showed dramatic changes in glucose tolerance. They also had higher-than-normal glucose levels after just one week. This study involved healthy people with no previous record of insulin resistance or history of diabetes.
For those already diagnosed with diabetes, sleep deprivation leads to extremely poor blood sugar control. These studies do not include control factors of the snowball effect that often starts with losing a night's sleep. Sleepy people don't usually reach for healthy foods as snacks and meals. They don't usually choose to walk during their lunch break -– or head to the weight room after work. Tight glucose control involves nutrition and exercise parameters, and both of those are adversely affected by just one night of impaired sleep.
How Can We Improve Our Sleeping Patterns?
1. Keep the bedroom for sleep and sex. Don't let the bedroom become the home office. Keep the clutter and distraction of that quickly approaching timeline out of the bedroom. Keep a cool temperature, and design the room for its purpose. Walking into your bedroom should be a clear change from the rest of the house.
2. Put down the screens. An hour or more before bedtime, put down the computer, smartphone and TV. Dim the lights throughout the house, and start getting your mind ready to wind down. Some people use blackout shades in the bedroom during the summer months. Before electricity, people stayed awake two or three hours past dusk with candlelight, and their natural circadian rhythms prompted them to sleep. There's a lot of research that links artificial light –- including blue-light from screens -– with interrupted sleep patterns. If we're staying up six or more hours past dusk with fluorescent light glowing, our bodies don't know when it’s time to sleep.
3. Pay attention to what you eat and drink before bedtime. Try not to go to bed ravenous or stuffed. Be aware that a glass of wine might help calm the nerves, but metabolizing alcohol keeps the body in an alert mode while the mind is trying to snooze. Have that glass of wine earlier in the evening. And yes, eating bad pizza right before bed can cause nightmares. So can stuffing yourself with any food minutes before trying to sleep. Your body is trying to do two things: metabolize food and sleep. The food is going to win, and that's a cause for dreams and other disruptions to quality sleep.
4. Move your body. There is substantial evidence that exercise helps you sleep. Even moderate exercise like a daily walk promotes better sleep -– in terms of quality and quantity. Be careful with your exercise timing, so you're not too energized with endorphins to sleep. There's also a direct link between exercise and stress, and stress is a big factor in sleep-deprived people. Move your body. Manage your stress. Get quality sleep.
Naturally, every person is different and all the "rules" may not apply. Notice I did not give common recommendations for hours of sleep. That's because more and more research emphasizes the importance of quality sleep over quantity. Using a sleep tracker device can give some insights on your sleep patterns and your actual deep sleep versus light sleep. And depending on your current circumstances, maybe getting any sleep is a cause for rejoicing.