Updated: Mar 3, 2019
Have you ever had a bad night of sleep? Most of us have had a night or two when we tossed and turned all night and then paid for it the next day. You wake up the next morning feeling cranky, over-tired. You wish you could go back to sleep but you have to get up and go to work. All morning you yawn, stretch, forget to do simple things and make silly mistakes that you would never make if you had slept well. This is only a hint of what sleep deprivation is doing to your body. But for those with chronic sleep issues, it can lead to serious mental and physical health issues.
Sleep, we are discovering, is every bit as important for your health as healthy food, pure water, and exercise. While the exact mechanisms of sleep are still quite a mystery, increasing volumes of research is revealing that your body’s sleep-wake cycle, or circadian biology, plays a central role in multiple body processes.
It is thought that one in five Americans are sleep deprived. Sleep appears to impact everything from mood and energy levels to disease progression, detoxing and weight gain. Far from simply helping you to feel alert, proper sleep forms the foundation for your body to function optimally and more important, to recover and repair. Therefore, when you do not get enough sleep, it can impact everything you do, including the quality of your exercise, your day and your health.
What makes sleep deprivation so detrimental is that it doesn’t just impact one aspect of your health… it impacts multiple levels of your health. Among them are three major risks to your mental and physical well-being which include slowed reaction time, your ability to think clearly (cognition) including memory and decision making skills, and your emotions, making road rage, arguing with spouse and co-workers and blowing things out of proportion more common.
Research has also found that sleep deprivation has the same effect on your immune system as physical stress or illness, which may help explain why lack of sleep is tied to an increased risk of numerous chronic diseases, including coronary heart disease, Diabetes, cancer, and even thyroid issues.
Poor sleep can impact virtually every aspect of your health, and not in a good way. The reason for this is your sleep-wake cycle or circadian rhythm which "drives" the rhythms of biological activity at the cellular level is altered. Sleep it seems is the pit stop for your body. It is the necessary biological period in which the body fights to regain its homeostasis. A time of repair and refreshment, relaxation and hormonal resetting.
Sleep, therefore, is tied to regulating hormone levels, including your melatonin production. Melatonin inhibits the proliferation of a wide range of cancer cells, as well as triggers cancer cell apoptosis (self-destruction), so losing sleep can harm your body’s ability to fight such diseases. During sleep, your brain cells also shrinks by about 60 percent, which allows for more efficient waste removal or detoxing of the brain.
In one study, a total of 147 adult volunteers underwent MRI scans to assess the link between sleep and brain volume. As it turns out, sleep problems like insomnia can and does have a distinct impact on your brain over time, causing it to shrink—and shrink more rapidly, compared to those who sleep well. This effect was particularly significant in those over 60, and may be an important factor in dementia issues.
Lack of sleep also decreases levels of your fat-regulating hormone leptin while increasing the hunger hormone ghrelin. The resulting increase in hunger and appetite can easily lead to overeating and weight gain.
So, not surprisingly, sleep is important, and any disruptions to sleep will affect your entire body. There’s a lot we still don’t know, but increasingly more that we do. For example, poor or insufficient sleep was found to be the strongest predictor for pain in adults over 50. This indicates that sleep is also likely to assist in reversing inflammation and thus pain.
In fact, one study found that when participants cut their sleep from 7.5 to 6.5 hours a night, there were increases in the expression of genes associated with inflammation, immune excitability, diabetes, cancer risk, and stress.
The results of this study make it appear as though sleeping for an extra hour, if you're getting less than seven hours of sleep a night, may be a simple way to boost your health. But the opposite also holds true in that getting just one hour less sleep a night may raise your risk of multiple chronic diseases. In fact, chronic insomnia can increase the risk of all-causes of mortality three fold.
Interrupted or impaired sleep has been implicated in many other health issues, including harming your brain by halting new neuron production. Sleep deprivation increases levels of corticosterone (a stress hormone), resulting in fewer new brain cells being created in your hippocampus. It may also contribute to a pre-diabetic, insulin-resistant state, making you feel hungry even if you've already eaten, which can lead to weight gain. Add that to interfering with your growth hormone production (normally released by the pituitary gland when we sleep) and you have an interesting contributor to premature aging, chronic pain and disease.
What this tells us is your sleep cycle and your body is very sensitive to change, even by an hour or so. But you likely knew that. Even the small amount of sleep deprivation caused by Daylight Saving Time for instance may be problematic. One Washington University neuroscientist reported that adjusting clocks forward one hour corresponds with a significant increase in traffic accidents and heart attacks. It may even increase that risk over one to three days.
Another study found that the Daylight Saving Time change leads to increases in workplace injuries.
The problem is, in the 21st century, many people ignore their body's internal clocks, either by necessity (working the night shift or remotely with co-workers across the globe) or choice (staying up late surfing the Web, gaming or watching TV). The quandary has some asking whether we should dump the Daylight Saving Time, eliminating the issues.
What about sleep aids? Well, according to statistic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 50 and 70 million Americans suffer from sleep deprivation, and nearly nine million Americans take prescription sleeping pills in pursuit of good night’s rest; one in six adults with a diagnosed sleep disorder and one in eight adults with trouble sleeping report using sleeping pills. In 2011, sales of generic Ambien (zolpidem tartrate) amounted to a whopping $2.8 billion and Lunesta another $912 million.
That’s a staggering number, but few realize that sleeping pills actually cause serious side effects, including addiction, daytime drowsiness, sleep walking, agitation, and hallucinations. According to the FDA, some sleeping pills have been linked to a 35% increase in cancer risk, and death from any cause.
So how do you get a good night’s sleep? First, you will need to properly align your circadian rhythms, and to achieve that, you need to get daylight exposure, ideally around solar noon, for at least 30-60 minutes or more each day, and yes that is also to boost your vitamin D production, a hormone vital to the process. Then, in the evening, you need to dim artificial light sources. In particular, you want to avoid the blue light wavelength. Research shows that exposure to bright room light before bedtime suppresses melatonin production in 99 percent of individuals. This can effectively rob you of sleep by preventing sleepiness.
To optimize sleep, you also need to make sure you’re going to bed early enough, because if you have to get up at 6:30am, you’re just not going to get enough sleep if you go to bed after midnight. Fitness trackers can track both daytime body movement and sleep, allowing you to get a better picture of how much sleep you’re actually getting.
Chances are, you’re getting at least 30 minutes less sleep than you think, as most people do not fall asleep as soon as their head hits the pillow and many may toss and turn, be disturbed by a snoring spouse or need to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. Besides maintaining a natural circadian rhythm, there are a number of additional ways to help improve your sleep if you’re still having trouble. Below are guidelines for promoting good sleep.
Avoid gaming, watching TV, or using your computer up until 2 hours before bed—TV and computer screens emit blue light, similar to daylight. This tricks your brain into thinking it's still daytime, thereby shutting down melatonin secretion. TV and PC screens also keep your brain in Beta waves, not the alpha wave needed for relaxation.
Sleep in a dark room. You don’t need total darkness but the intensity of light has to be at a certain level to suppress melatonin production. Complete darkness is probably best. Also avoid using night-lights, and turn the display on your clock radio away from you.
Keep the temperature in your bedroom comfortable. If you are too hot or too cold, you will have a hard time sleeping. Aim to keep your bedroom temperature between 60 to 68 degree.
Take a hot bath or shower 30-60 minutes before bedtime. The hot bath increases your core body temperature, opening up the blood vessels in your limbs. When you get out of the bath, heat can leave your body (if the room temperature is cool), abruptly dropping your core body temperature, making you drowsy and ready for great night’s sleep.
Keep electro-magnetic fields (EMFs) away from you. These can disrupt your pineal gland and the production of melatonin and serotonin, and may have other negative effects as well. That means that alarm clocks and cell phones should be at least 2-3 feet from you.
Get some sun in the morning, if possible. Your circadian biology needs bright light to reset itself. Ten to 15 minutes of morning sunlight will send a strong message to your internal clock that day has arrived, making it less likely to be confused by weaker light signals during the night. More sunlight exposure is required as you age.
Take a 45 miniute power nap. Research is finding that powernaps can boost memory five fold.
Take a multi-mineral. Not only does magnesium relax the muscles, but the minerals also include electrolytes. The higher the mineral content of your body the less likely you are to purge excess water, which keeps you going to the bathroom at night.