You know all too well what it feels like to miss out on a full night of sleep. You’re not only groggy, but cranky as well. If you don’t sleep well for several nights in a row, you may find that you can’t think straight and your reactions are slower.
But, the effects of sleeplessness are not just limited to your brain. A good night’s sleep is a key element in a healthy lifestyle and sleep deprivation is implicated in a host of health issues – from low immunity, food cravings, fat storage, to heart disease and obesity. According to Andrew Weill, M.D., “research suggests it is in the deepest stages of sleep that the body is able to restore organs, bones and tissues; replenish immune cells; and circulate a rejuvenating supply of human growth hormone, making us less vulnerable to the diseases of aging.” Furthermore, William Dement, M.D., co-founder of the Stanford University Sleep Disorders Clinic, states that “there is compelling evidence supporting the argument that sleep is the most important predictor of how long you will live, perhaps more important than whether you smoke, exercise, or have high blood pressure, or cholesterol levels.”
Almost everyone has an occasional sleepless night. But, if your sleep deprivation persists for more than three weeks, you might have chronic sleeplessness or insomnia. By all accounts sleep deprivation is epidemic and most people are unaware that they’re suffering from years of “sleep debt.”
A Nation of Sleep Deprivation
According to a “Sleep America” poll taken a few years ago, nearly two-thirds of the adults in this country do not get the eight hours of nightly sleep that the National Sleep Foundation says is needed for optimal health, safety, and performance. In fact, Americans average 6.9 hours of sleep on weeknights and 7.5 hours of sleep on weekends. The recommendation is that we get at least eight hours of sleep each night. Children need more sleep. They require at least nine to ten hours of sleep per night.
No wonder Americans spend around $5 billion each year on sleep medications. The New York Times, quoting National Institute of Health figures, reports that sleeping aids such as Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata reduced the average time to go to sleep by just under 13 minutes compared to placebo. This is surprising when so many of us depend upon sleeping pills when we could just as well wait a few more minutes to fall asleep.
Why Aren’t We Getting Enough Sleep?
One of the reasons that we are getting so little rest is that we are working more. Over the past thirty years we have added 158 hours to our annual working and community time. Our stressful schedules have become a key cause of sleeplessness. As a nation, we sleep 20 percent less than we did 100 years ago. We have a tendency to over-schedule ourselves, work longer hours, and stay up late trying to get everything done. We also over-schedule our children, while training them to be insomniacs, as well.
The long-term effects of sleep deprivation involve our health. Sleep deprivation is linked to weight gain, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart problems, depression, and substance abuse. One of the most interesting effects of sleep deprivation involves the weight maintaining hormones leptin and ghrelin. Leptin, an appetite-suppressing hormone, decreases with too little sleep. At the same time, ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates appetite, increases with lack of sleep. The result is that we are more likely to have an increased appetite as a result of sleep deprivation.
What Else Should We Know About Insomnia?
It is a misnomer that as we age that we need less sleep. If we feel best with eight hours of sleep when we are thirty, we will still feel best with eight hours when we are sixty. What is noticed though is that sleep patterns shift as we age. Many times this may be caused by blood sugar and hormonal imbalances. The fluctuation in female hormones through puberty, pregnancy, peri-menopause, menopause can lead to insomnia. Some other reasons for insomnia include:
Blood Sugar Imbalances
Nocturnal hypoglycemia is very common. A drop in blood sugar early in the morning, especially between the hours of 2:00 to 3:30a.m., can cause wakefulness.
Adrenal hormones, particularly cortisol, can be higher than normal at night and cause insomnia. The person who feels tired in the morning and has more energy at night reflects this pattern of insomnia. This may mean that the cortisol levels are low in the morning and higher in the evening. This pattern is contrary to the body’s natural circadian rhythm. So the body can rest and sleep well at night, the cortisol levels are naturally higher in the morning and lower at night.
The body depends upon serotonin, the brain chemical that gives a sense of well-being, to produce melatonin at night so that we can sleep. If we don’t eat enough foods that contain B vitamins, especially B6 and B3, our body cannot make serotonin. The body also needs calcium and magnesium to relax our muscles and our nervous system. Eating foods rich in B vitamins and minerals is essential. Foods such as organic sources of protein, gluten-free whole grains, nuts, seeds, and green leafy vegetables can keep our bodies more balanced with the nutrients necessary to get a good night’s sleep.
Allergies and Food Intolerances
These affect the nervous system and impact adrenal output. Eating foods to which we are sensitive creates chronic stress which can lead to insomnia.
Any change of schedule can disturb our natural circadian rhythm and disturb our sleep patterns. People who work at night and sleep during the day often shift their hours on their days off. This is a recipe for sleep deprivation.
Being Inactive or Over-Exercising
Regular physical activity can release tension and increase the release of endorphins. Over exercising can significantly increase cortisol levels and lead to excessive stress and insomnia.
The Good News
Tips for Increasing Restful Sleep
- Expose yourself to bright light or sunlight soon after you awaken to help attune your biological clock to the difference between night and day.
- Get regular physical activity. Buy a pedometer and walk at least 12,000 steps per day.
- Avoid drinking alcohol too late in the evening. Alcohol decreases the levels of melatonin and can disrupt sleep during the night.
- Establish a regular sleep routine, even on weekends. Go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning.
- Create a bedtime routine. Relax before bedtime. Listen to soothing music or take a warm bath.
- Keep your feet warm. Wear socks to bed, if necessary.
- Avoid stimulants such as caffeine, which can keep you awake.
- Eat wholesome foods, especially proteins that are rich sources of tryptophan such as turkey, dairy, eggs, nuts, pumpkin seeds and brown rice which can help your body make serotonin.
- Manage your stress by retraining your nervous system to relax. You can use meditation, deep breathing or relaxation techniques(yoga, Tai chi, biofeedback, music).
- Create a sleep producing environment. Take out the TV and computer. Unplug the electrical appliances. Make certain that any electrical appliances, including alarm clocks, are not near your head when sleeping. You might consider a battery powered clock.
- Sleep in a dark environment. Melatonin, your sleep hormone, is only secreted in darkness.
Getting a good night’s sleep doesn’t have to be a long term frustration. Talk to a health professional about other options and what tests you can take to find out if you have any nutritional or physiological imbalances that might lead to insomnia. The solution may be as easy as making some effective, yet simple changes in your diet and lifestyle.