When It comes to your Health, Sleep Matters

July 28, 2010

Sleep is important for overall health

These days, it seems a lot of people aren't getting the sleep they need. The first thing that tends to go when our days get busy is sleep. And many people have sleep problems such as insomnia, which makes it hard to get to sleep or stay asleep. The National Center for Sleep Disorders Research at the National Institutes of Health tells us that about 30 to 40 percent of adults say they have signs of insomnia within a given year, and about 10 to 15 percent say they have long-term insomnia. But more and more studies show that getting enough good quality sleep is as important as eating well to staying healthy in mind and body.

When we sleep, the body has time to heal and restore itself. Our muscles are repaired, and our brain sorts through the things we've learned during the day. So the one-third of our lives that we spend sleeping is very important.

Missing some sleep once in a while is no big deal. But a lack of sound sleep over time can bring on serious health problems.

  • Lack of sleep can lead to weight gain and the health problems that go along with it. It affects the way our body controls our appetite and uses food for fuel.
  • Sleep loss can lead to depression.
  • The strength of our immune system and our ability to fight off illnesses can depend on getting enough sleep. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tell us that lack of sleep is linked to diabetes, heart disease, obesity and depression. In addition, as the Harvard Women's Health Watch reported, keeping up with sleep may also help fight cancer.
  • An article in Science NOW from the American Association for the Advancement of Science reported that a recent study at the University of Pennsylvania shows a link between lack of sleep and memory problems.
  • Lack of sleep is a real safety problem. Many accidents happen when people are sleepy.
  • Even your heart can suffer when you don't get enough sleep. Problems like high blood pressure have been linked to sleep apnea, a condition that prevents people from getting sound sleep.

How much sleep do you need?

On average, adults need about eight hours of sleep a night. But some people do well with as little as six, while others need ten to feel their best. If you find yourself waking up with a headache, feeling groggy during the day, or feeling tired or sleepy when you drive, it's a good bet you're not getting as much sleep as you need.

Sleep that is often disturbed is not as healthful as a sound night of sleep. That's because while you are asleep, your body goes through stages that range from light to deep sleep. Repeated waking and dozing throws off that healthy pattern. That's one reason people who continue to push the snooze button rarely feel rested.

How can you get the sleep you need?

  • Try to keep a regular sleep schedule, going to bed and getting up at the same time each night.
  • Avoid caffeine for four to six hours before bedtime.
  • Don't smoke before bed or if you wake up in the middle of the night.
  • Sleep in a dark, quiet room that isn't too hot or too cold.
  • Don't eat a heavy meal for at least three hours before you go to bed.
  • Don't watch TV or look at a computer screen right before bedtime.
  • If you want to find out how much sleep you need, try going to bed 15 minutes earlier at night until you get to the point where you wake up feeling refreshed.

If you continue to feel signs of a lack of sleep, see your doctor. You may have a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea that will benefit from a doctor's care.

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