Sleep experts recommend that adults get seven to nine hours of sleep a night. If only it were that easy. According to a 2008 survey conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, almost 65 percent report having problems sleeping. Also among respondents were 29 percent who fell asleep or became very sleepy at work. And a frightening 36 percent admit to having nodded off or even fallen asleep while driving.
We’re a nation in serious need of a good night’s sleep. Worse, we’re not even aware of how deeply we’re affected, says Neil Kavey, MD, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at New York–Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia. “The people who are the worst at estimating how sleep deprived they are, are the sleep-deprived people.”
Dr. Kavey says that when we force ourselves to function despite lack of sleep, it puts our bodies under stress — and that has wide-ranging consequences. “Your thinking, the speed of your thinking, the accuracy of your thinking, your memory, your physical coordination, and your strength are all affected,” says Dr. Kavey.
Most of us recognize the obvious signs, like grogginess and irritability, that indicate too little sleep. But other effects may surprise you. The sleep deprived among us are up to three times as susceptible to colds as those who sleep through the night, according to a study published in the January 2009 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine. Studies link lack of sleep with negative effects on the functioning of several major organs, including the brain, thyroid, and cardiovascular system. As if that weren’t enough, sleeplessness appears to play a role in obesity.
snooze to lose
It sounds far-fetched to say that our waistlines may be expanding because our sleep times are shrinking. But the link between obesity and sleep deprivation has been demonstrated by numerous studies, says Michael Breus, PhD, a board-certified sleep specialist with the Atlanta School of Sleep Medicine and the author of Beauty Sleep (Plume, 2007). “When you’re sleep deprived, your metabolism slows down,” Dr. Breus says. “You have more of a hormone called ghrelin in your system that’s telling you to eat, and less of leptin, which suppresses appetite. You also have an increase in cortisol, which is an appetite stimulant.”
A study found that those who are sleep deprived also tend to choose more high-carbohydrate, high-fat foods, says Dr. Breus. Although scientists don’t yet know why lack of sleep should affect our food choices, Dr. Breus notes that high-carbohydrate foods help the brain release serotonin, a natural neurotransmitter that improves mood. “We think that because the body is so agitated when you’re sleep deprived, you’re looking for ways to calm yourself. And food is one of those ways.”
Sleeping next to a snorer can wreck your attempts at getting enough rest. As for the snorer, loud snoring may be a sign of a serious condition called sleep apnea. “People with severe sleep apnea can have increased risk of hypertension, cardiac arrhythmias, heart attacks, and strokes,” says Neeraj Kaplish, MD, a clinical lecturer in the University of Michigan’s department of neurology and attending physician in its sleep disorders center.
How can you tell if a snore is more than just an unwelcome moonlight serenade? Dr. Kaplish says that one warning sign is when there’s a pause in the snorer’s breathing. Any of the following may also signal sleep apnea: waking up feeling unrefreshed despite getting a full night’s sleep; tossing, turning, and feeling restless throughout the night; feeling unusually warm or sweaty; and waking with a headache.
If you suspect sleep apnea, see your primary care physician for diagnosis and treatment. For most sufferers, there are simple solutions. The doctor may recommend sleeping in a different position or sleeping with a custom-made mouthpiece, such as the CPAP device, that keeps the airway open at night.
Regardless of the reason for the lack of shut-eye, some doctors believe that people who are chronically sleep-deprived are at a greater risk for developing heart disease. And preliminary research backs this up. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in December 2008 found that those who slept less than five hours per night had much higher incidences of coronary artery calcification than those who slept more than seven hours. Another study, published in the March 2007 issue of the journal Chest, found that when sleep is disrupted, blood clotting increases. Increased coronary artery calcification and blood clotting can both cause heart problems.
The bottom line: do your best to get a good night’s rest. Do it for your waistline. Do it for your heart. Do it for your sense of well-being. And if sleep doesn’t come easily, it may be time to see your doctor. ”
Tips for a Better Night’s Sleep
- Can a warm bath really help you get to sleep? Michael Breus, PhD, says it can. Take a 20-minute soak about three hours before bedtimeThe National Sleep Foundation advises those with trouble sleeping to avoid caffeine, including coffee, tea, and cola, within six to eight hours of bedtime.
- Over-the-counter sleep aids can be very effective for occasional insomnia, says Neil Kavey, MD. But if you have a chronic problem getting to sleep, “It’s better to see your doctor and find out what’s wrong because insomnia can be the result of lots of different medical problems.”
- And here’s a tip for pregnant women from Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at New York Medical College. Lie on your side to avoid compressing the major blood vessels that carry blood and oxygen to your uterus and your baby. “Lying on either side is preferable to lying on one’s back,” says Dr. Thornton, “and lying on one’s left, to shift the uterus away from these blood vessels, is better.” It’s also far more comfortable.
- A regular routine helps set your body clock. The National Sleep Foundation advises going to bed and waking at the same times every day. And don’t bring your work to bed with you.