The nation’s population is “intoxicated” with sleep loss. Sadly, poor sleep is more the rule than the exception. According to the Institute of Medicine, 50-70 million adults in the United States have sleep or wakefulness disorders (1). This lack of sufficient sleep is not just happening in the US. Worldwide, in 1942, 8 hours of sleep was the norm, now, 6.8 is the average, with 40% of adults sleeping less than 6 hours per night (4). Altogether this worldwide amassed sleep debt is one large alarm bell (2,3). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider poor sleep a “public health problem.” Ultimately, this means more and more people are at an increased risk of developing other health concerns from insufficient sleep (5).
Health Consequences of Poor Sleep
Science already tells us that for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. When the body is well rested, the body performs optimally. On the flip side, when the body is poorly rested, performance plummets. Individuals who suffer from chronic lack of sleep or from poor quality of sleep are likely to experience decreased brain function, hormonal imbalances, increased risk of heart disease, abnormal growth and development (especially among teens), decreased productivity and performance, fertility issues, poor immune and insulin responses, and an increased risk of getting in a motor vehicle accident.
Among children and teens, insufficient sleep is associated with an increased risk for obesity, diabetes, injuries, poor mental health, attention and behavior problems, and poor academic performance. Nationwide, approximately two thirds of U.S. high school students report sleeping less than 8 hours per night on school nights (2). In short, sleep plays a crucial role in the repair and maintenance of all systems (physical and psychological) of the human body.
What Happens During Sleep
A state of sleep may seem, on the surface, to be a quiet and tranquil experience. But your body is working hard to repair, recover, build, strengthen, grow and defend. It’s during sleep that the “real” work of progress begins and ends. Sleep is a productive process even if you aren’t moving or interacting.
While you rest, the body begins its work. Like a factory, several processes occur all at once and involve multiple systems. For example:
The brain “cleans house.” Cerebral spinal fluid flushes through the brain, cleaning out waste products from cells.
Breathing and heart rates slow and blood pressure decreases.
Hormones are released that aid in repairing tissues.
It makes sense that if the body is chronically under-rested, these valuable and necessary processes are disrupted. The body then cannot adequately repair tissues and blood vessels, produce and release hormones efficiently, or remove waste. If sleep suffers, there are systemic, long-lasting effects (1).
Downward Spiral to Poor Health
When the body is sleep deprived, the brain craves food (and usually not the healthiest varieties). The hormones responsible for regulating hunger and satiety become unbalanced. Ghrelin (the hunger hormone) increases, while leptin (the satiety hormone) decreases. Consequently, caloric intake increases and caloric expenditure decreases due to lack of motivation from mental and physical fatigue. This eventually leads to weight gain.
Further, poor sleep results in higher-than-normal blood-sugar levels because a tired body is unable to effectively respond to insulin. If poor sleep is chronic, the development of metabolic disorders is inevitable.
We have to commit to being “sleep fit” and ensuring sleep hygiene in order to reverse the downward health spiral and improve the body’s functional capacity.
How to Improve Sleep Fitness
Everyone requires a slightly different environment to sleep well. However, there are some key ingredients to improving the “sleepability” of your space. When it comes to your environment consider taking the following actions:
Remove (or turn off) all electronics and cover the alarm clock an hour before bed. The circadian rhythm is most sensitive to blue light (the type emitted from electronics).
Make the room as dark as possible.
Make sure the room is at a comfortable temperature.
Evaluate the noise level or add a white noise machine or fan.
Do some deep breathing exercises for 3-5 minutes. Inhale through your nose letting your chest expand, and hold your breath for 5-7 seconds; then exhale with force through your mouth. Do this 3-4 times with eyes closed.
There are also several behavioral tricks you can employ to improve sleep:
Develop a routine: If you don’t have a bedtime routine, establish one for you and your family. Incorporate relaxing activities (meditate, read a book, listen to calming music, etc.).
Activity naturally promotes better sleep. Try to avoid working out too late in the evening as that can make it difficult to fall asleep.
Reduce caffeine intake. Try waiting to enjoy that first jolt of java until 9 a.m. Having caffeine before that time frame can disrupt the body’s normal cortisol rhythm and disrupt sleep later on. Further, caffeine also antagonizes adenosine (another ingredient to promote restful sleep).
Limit alcohol. Alcohol is a depressant that has sedative-like effects; however, it also causes an individual to wake frequently during the night from dehydration. Limit your intake of alcoholic beverages before bed or late in the evening.
Finally, communicate openly with your doctor if you feel sleep deprivation is chronic and interfering with your life (personally and professionally).
Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem. Institute of Medicine. NAP 2006. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20669438
Date shows a Shocking Worldwide Lack of Sleep. Leigh Horan, Sleep Matters. https://www.dreams.co.uk/sleep-matters-club/data-shows-a-shocking-worldwide-lack-of-sleep/
Sleep Deprivation: A Global Epidemic. MedSleep; April 25, 2017. https://medsleep.com/sleep-deprivation-global-epidemic/
Short Sleep Duration Among Middle School and High School Students — United States:2015. Weekly/January 26, 2018/67(3);85–90. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/wr/mm6703a1.htm