Healthy sleep is as important as diet, exercise and stress management for health.
Many American’s fail to make the effort to get healthy sleep, believing that sleep is expendable. Research is beginning to show us that this is not true. We are losing sleep at our own risk.
“There is plenty of 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.”(1)
Believe it or not, getting healthy sleep…
* Can increase your ability to think clearly and function at your highest level
* Can boost althletic performance by 30%
* Improves your skin and appearance
* Helps you lose weight
* Improves your memory and ability to learn
* Decreases your risk of diabetes
* Helps to protect your heart and decrease your risk of heart disease
* Improves your ability to fight off infections
* Decreases your risk of accidents(2-4)
The Benefits of Sleep:
“We are not healthy unless our sleep is healthy.” writes sleep research pioneer, William Dement, MD(1).
Intuitively, we’ve always known that sleep is important. “There’s nothing better than a good night’s sleep” is a common expression of this understanding. But for some reason we don’t listen to our own wisdom. As children most of us had bedtimes that were the law of the household. Our parent’s made sure that we got enough sleep. They knew what was good for us. As we got older most of us seem to have forgotten or ignored the value of sleep. We live in a culture that values industriousness, work and productivity, and that frowns on lethargy.
Within just the past year (2008) there has been a surge of media attention on healthy sleep and insomnia. This is largely a result of more research coming out on the ill effects of insomnia for previously unsuspected conditions like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, obesity and weight gain. Researchers now suggest that insomnia is a major risk factor for these diseases.
Why are we losing so much healthy sleep?
A major cause of lost sleep is stress and overwork.
In stressful times in our life a common reaction is to rev ourselves up to meet the demands placed upon us. Stresses may come and go in our individual lives. But now our entire society seems to be stressed. Almost no one would argue that we are now experiencing stress of historic proportions(circa 2008).
One of the first casualties of stress is healthy sleep. We Americans are struggling with insomnia more than ever. In 2005 a poll by the National Sleep Foundation reported that less than half of all Americans feel they get healthy sleep either every night or every other night(5).
Our nation’s lack of healthy sleep is reflected by our use of sleep medications. Forty-nine million prescriptions for sleep medications were written in 2006(3). This was a 53% increase over the previous five years. The leading sleep drug is Ambien which accounted for 60% of sleep prescriptions in 2006, or $2,800,000,000 (2.8 billion) in sales. In 2006 drug companies spent $600,000,000 on advertising. The primary focus of all the advertising has been “destigmatizing sleeping pill use”(5).
While the major reason for all our sleeplessness is stress, our modern environment also discourages sleep.
Artificial light and man made technologies give us many reasons to stay awake at night. Remember that for most of mankind’s history the darkness of night put a real damper on staying awake to the wee hours. Our grandparents slept 1 1/2 hours more than we do each night according to Dr. Christopher Gillin, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of San Diego(6). He reports that one in three Americans complain of a bout of insomnia within the last year, and one in six consider their insomnia serious.
Thomas Edison himself, inventor of the electric light bulb, believed that too much sleep was a bad thing. “The person who sleeps eight or ten hours a night is never fully asleep and never fully awake-he has only different degrees of doze through the 24 hours”, said Edison. He felt that people got twice as much sleep as needed. Excess sleep caused them to be “unhealthy and inefficient”(1).
While Edison is known to have frequently slept only four hours a night, it is also reported that he also took frequent daytime naps. His total sleep time seems to have been close to 8 hours each 24 hours. Given Edison’s personal philosophy it follows that he invented the electric light bulb. No single invention has so disrupted the human sleep cycle as electric lights.
The rhythm of healthy sleep and our biological clock
Our biological clock keeps time for our body’s natural rhythm of sleep and awakening. It sets the timing of healthy sleep. Our body’s clock can be upset by artificial light. Our body follows the day-night cycle by registering light through the eyes. This daily rhythm is called the circadian rhythm.
Each 24 hours as our earth rotates on its axis we experience this rhythm. It is the 24 hour repeating cycle that our lives are patterned after. The darkness of night stimulates our brain to release melatonin, the body’s sleep hormone. Melatonin helps to induce sleep. Artificial lighting lowers melatonin secretion and can interfere with our ability to get to sleep.
The downside of our 24/7 Society
When our ancestors “burned the mid night oil” the light’s intensity was not enough to disrupt our body’s circadian rhythm. Light intensity is measured in luxes. One lux is the amount of light given off by one candle. Researchers have shown that just 180 lux can reset or disrupt our biological clock. A 100 watt bulb at 10 feet distance emits 190 lux, which is enough to reset your biological clock.
With darkness our eyes register less light. This signals our brain to release melatonin, the body’s sleep hormone. Melatonin levels rise higher at night and drop in the daytime, all in response to the light coming into our eyes. This is how mankind experienced the day-night cycle for 1000’s of years.
A glaring bright light at midnight tells your body that the sun is shining and as a result your brain lowers melatonin levels. This disruption of melatonin can impact our sleep health. Melatonin has been shown to have many health benefits of its own. Lowering its levels in the body may also impact our health separate from the sleep issue. In our modern society we are exposed to lot’s of stress and 24/7 activity. The combination of the two is seriously affecting our sleep. For most of us, our sleep is no longer healthy.
What is healthy sleep?
Healthy sleep means you’re getting enough sleep and that you are experiencing all of the stages of sleep in their proper amounts. How much sleep is enough? The consensus among sleep researchers is that adults need about eight hours a night.
Sleep researcher, Dr. William Dement puts it this way- “Generally people need to sleep one hour for every two hours awake, which means that most need around eight hours sleep a night. Of course some people need more and some need less, and a few people seem to need a great deal more or less.”(1) Before you begin to justify your chronic lapse of sleep, consider this powerful statement by Dr. Dement:
“Although sleep needs vary, people who sleep about eight hours, on average, tend to live longer”.(1)
Other than the number of hours you get, how can you tell if you’re getting enough sleep? The best way is to see how quickly you can fall asleep during the day if you’re given a chance. This is how researchers measure sleep deprivation. The Multiple Sleep Latency Test is used by scientists to assess the level of an individual’s sleep deprivation.
Research subjects are given a place to lie down comfortably in a quiet, dark room in the middle of the day. The volunteer’s brain waves are monitored to see if and when they go to sleep. The test lasts just 20 minutes. Research subjects are given a place to lie down comfortably in a quiet, dark room in the middle of the day. The volunteer’s brain waves are monitored to see if and when they go to sleep. The test lasts just 20 minutes.
If a the subject falls asleep in under 5 minutes this represents a severe sleep deficiency. These subject’s “physical and mental reactions are often very impaired”(1). Falling asleep in between 5 and 10 minutes is considered being “borderline” sleep deprived. Falling asleep between 10 and 15 minutes indicates an acceptable amount of sleep need. Falling asleep in 15 to 20 minutes or not at all suggests that the subject has an excellent level of alertness.
Another way to see how sleep deprived you are is to look at how sleepy you are. The sleepier you are the more you need sleep, right? This evaluation, called the Epworth sleepiness scale(8) is accurate whether you’re someone who needs more or less than eight hours. If you’re sleepy, you’re just not getting enough sleep.
The normal sleep cycle.
The other part of getting healthy sleep is having a normal sleep cycle. This means that you go through all of the cycles of sleep and experience each of them for a sufficient amount of time.
There are four stages of sleep and REM. Stages 1 through 4 are a progression from falling asleep (stage 1), into light sleep (stage 2) and then deep sleep (stages 3 and 4). During deep sleep the body is in a profoundly relaxed state. Muscle tension is relaxed, blood pressure slows, heart rate and breathing are diminished. During deep sleep the body secretes pulses of human growth hormone.
Human growth hormone is sometimes called the hormonal fountain of youth because of its rejuvenating qualities. Each night your body repairs and restores itself under the direction of human growth hormone. After going into deep sleep one emerges into REM sleep. During REM sleep there is Rapid Eye Movement. REM is when we dream. Researchers have found that REM sleep seems to help us remember what we learned the day before.
(1) Dement, William C., Vaughan, Christopher. The Promise of Sleep. Introduction. © 1999, Dell Publishing, NY, NY. William Dement, M.D. is a pioneer in sleep research who has worked to promote awareness of the epidemic of sleeplessness and its ill effects.
(2) Susan Brink (2000, October). Sleepless Society In staying up half the night, we may risk our health. U.S. News & World Report, 129(15), 62-72.
(3) Well-Rested Olympians Ready to Go for Gold. (2006, February). USA Today, 134(2729), 15.
(4) Lauren Wiener, Hollace Schmidt. (2007, March). your new #1 stay-healthy mission: get more sleep. Shape, 26(7), 98,100-102.
(5) Mooallem, Jon. The Sleep-Industrial Complex. New York Times, November 18, 2007.
(6) From published notes of a radio interview the week of March 31, 1999, Lichenstein Creative Media, The Infinite Mind.
(7) The Free Dictionary by Farlex.
(8) From Wikepedia, keyword: Epworth Sleepiness Scale