Everyone talks about the importance of a good diet and exercise, but what about sleep? The secret to better health may be just under the covers.
I remember the pouting and tears in the nightly battle of Child versus Parent — the fight to stay up “just a little bit longer.” Like most kids, I hated to go to bed, and I remember my mother saying, “When you are grown up, you’ll be glad to go to sleep,” and darned if she wasn’t right. Now, at the end of the day, I anticipate getting to sleep with the greatest pleasure.
Ah, wonderful sleep. It’s a biological necessity for all of us, but one still surrounded by mysteries scientists have just begun to penetrate. They’re finding that it does much more than erase the dark circles under our eyes. The more we work, the less we sleep, with implications going far beyond daytime yawning — it has a dramatic effect on our overall health. So why, then, does sleep merit such a low priority in our busy lives?
“Everyone talks about the importance of diet and exercise,” says Ron Kramer, an expert on sleep, “but the third leg of that stool is sleep.” Kramer, a neurologist whose practice is dedicated to sleep medicine, says the high-powered repair of our bodies at the molecular level occurs during sleep — and only in sleep. “It’s not just rest!” he emphasizes.
The tick tock of the circadian clock
Sleep is regulated by the circadian clock, an area of the brain influenced by light. We naturally tend to get sleepy when it’s dark, and are active during daylight hours. The circadian clock also regulates the cycles of most bodily functions, ensuring that our body chemistry is reset to “normal” while we sleep.
Various hormones secreted by the endocrine glands are associated with the stages of sleep. When you first nod off, melatonin, a hormone which regulates immune-system function and blood pressure, is released. About an hour into dreamland, our bodies get their biggest boost of human growth hormone, which helps repair muscle and bone, creates collagen and regulates fat metabolism. Cells also increase their protein production during deep sleep. Since proteins are what rebuilds cells and repairs damage caused by the stress we experience during the day, deep sleep may truly be “beauty sleep.”
And it’s not just our bodies that refresh. While we sleep, our brains are highly active — possibly even more active than when we’re awake — busy putting all our thoughts in order, like a conscientious librarian.
“Without sleep, our memory disintegrates and cognitive function is disturbed,” says Alon Avidan, a professor of neurology at UCLA’s sleep-disorders center. “Sleep is like having the computer go through a defragmentation. It allows all the ‘files’ to get organized and make room for new memories.”
A zzzz here and a zzzz there
Because different “repair crews” are at work during each of the four distinct stages of sleep, we need to have continuous, unbroken slumber to feel refreshed and alert in the morning.
“Interrupting sleep also interferes with the body’s capability to use insulin. If we wonder why we get fat or why it’s so easy to develop diabetes, perhaps we should be looking at poor sleep for answers,” says sleep researcher Ronald Harper, professor of neurobiology at UCLA Medical Center.
You’d think that after a long, busy day, sleep would come easily. But this is often not so.
“People tend to carry their daytime behavior into the bedroom,” says Harper. “We know people who take their tax material to bed and work on that as a way of going to sleep! It’s no surprise that they have trouble sleeping.”
Physicians recommend natural ways to improve your sleep, what they call “good sleep hygiene.” Create a regular routine, wind down with relaxing, non-energetic activities and don’t eat too close to bedtime. Also avoid caffeine, alcohol and nicotine, and use the bedroom only for sleep and sex.
Keep the temperature in the bedroom between 60 and 70 degrees. But if you’re still tossing and turning, one of the new, more effective and safer sleep medications could be the answer — at least temporarily.
The quality of sleep with the help of medication doesn’t appear to differ from that of normal sleep. But there is a downside — very few sleep aids work for extended periods of time, and side effects can include unwanted behavior such as sleepwalking. “People build tolerance,” Avidan says. “The effectiveness goes away and there’s always the issue of dependence.”
How much sleep do I need?
Finding the “right” amount of sleep depends on each individual’s needs. There’s no magic number, but studies suggest that healthy adults should get seven to just over eight hours every night. Still, common sense should prevail. If you are dragging through the day or nodding off in front of the TV, listen to your body and its requirements.
There is an important balance between how much sleep your body and mind need to perform at their best and something the experts call “sleep debt” — what accumulates from too little sleep. Even if you get a good night’s sleep on one night, if you then get only six hours of shut-eye each night for the next week, you’ll find yourself seriously in debt to the sleep bank.
Contrary to popular myth, your body doesn’t compensate or happily adjust to this irregular schedule. Sure, you may not see the negative results immediately, but sooner or later you’re bound to notice the effects – poor concentration and memory, daytime sleepiness, irritability, predisposition toward accidents, not to mention the possibility of longer range, more serious health issues.
Experts say the best way to calculate how much sleep you really need is to experiment when you have downtime or when you’re on vacation. Establish a firm bedtime schedule and stick to it. After a few days, you should be waking up normally at the same time. This will give you an idea of the amount of sleep your body optimally requires.
If you are wondering if naps can take up the slack, the answer is yes, to some extent. But interrupted sleep is not as productive as sustained sleep. Still, whether we’re talking about a half-hour snatched from a busy day or a full eight hours of log sawing, the important thing is that you sleep, not just rest.
If you’re having an ongoing problem, bring it up with your doctor – it’s not just a quality-of-life issue. When sleep is chronically disrupted, there can be a lot more devastating physical consequences than a crabby disposition. In fact, people who consistently get less or more than the optimum amount of sleep (six or fewer hours and nine or more hours) have significantly higher mortality rates from cardiovascular disease and other causes.
So, just as you go to the gym and watch your carbs and fat consumption, start making a nighttime commitment to get a good night’s rest. The benefit of sleep is the best-kept secret in the bedroom.
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