Sleep and Health: Part I

There are many things in life that we can achieve by just working harder; trying harder. Sleep is not one of them. In fact, in the middle of the night, with mind racing and a clear understanding that we have to arise in several hours for a long day of work, a day that will be severely hindered by our lack of sleep, the more we “try” to sleep, the less it comes.

Yet sleep is crucial to our health and wellbeing. Our bodies are designed for this respite and regeneration cycle every 24 hours. If you stop to think about it, sleep is a lot like breathing air and drinking water—we don’t value how very crucial it is until we don’t have enough of it! So why is sleep so hard to come by in our society?

There are folks who have diagnosed conditions and chronic insomnia, but there is also a growing number of people who struggle on and off to sleep enough. Even young children are getting less sleep than they used to. Our fast-paced lifestyles and constant attachment to screens for work and entertainment, lack of physical activity and addiction to sugar, caffeine and alcohol play a role in the increased incidence of sleep deficit.

Over the next two weeks, I will explore the topic of sleep and its relationship to our health and wellbeing, interviewing real people about their challenges and solutions to getting a healthy amount of sleep.

While I don’t personally have a serious problem sleeping, I have definitely experienced the negative effects of deprived sleep, and have at times in my life, suffered from sleep deficit. So often, when I haven’t slept enough I make poor decisions. Even small decisions, like what to eat, as well as potentially fatal decisions, like driving a car a long distance, are negatively affected by my ability to reason well when I lack sleep. Some of the symptoms, although less severe, are similar to the influence of alcohol or drugs. You know the feeling after a night of little or no sleep, stumbling through the day in a haze, short-tempered, unable to focus, drained of energy.

Many say that when they haven’t had enough sleep it’s easy to fill the restlessness and even exhaustion and feeling of deprivation with junk food or TV binges. Let’s face it, we don’t have the energy to be as mindful of our decisions when we are overly tired.

When I am sleep deprived, I find it very hard to stick to any exercise routine. It’s easy to rationalize that my mental and physical exhaustion prohibit my ability to work out. And it’s true! According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) resource titled “Sleep Deprivation and Deficiency”, not sleeping enough does deprive our mind and body of a crucial restorative recharge and new pathways for healthy brain function.

The scary thing is that teens and young adults have the energy to mask sleep deprivation, but they perhaps need the sleep the most as it is literally the “battery charge” for their brains and bodies growth and development.

NHLBI resource continues, “Adequate sleep is vital to protecting mental and physical health, cognitive ability as well as quality of life and safety. Studies show that a good night’s sleep improves learning. Whether you’re learning math, how to play the piano, how to perfect your golf swing, or how to drive a car, sleep helps enhance your learning and problem-solving skills. Sleep also helps you pay attention, make decisions, and be creative.”

There are two groups of individuals especially affected by a lack of sleep: people with diabetes and young people.

Youth are negatively affected by lack of sleep in more ways than just learning and school work. Emotional and social development is impacted by sleep deprivation, and when youth struggle to get along with others or have challenges, focusing, managing anger, being impulsive and feel sad and depressed, one of the factors may be that their bodies are not resting and recharging with enough sleep. The impact on development, both physical and mental, is crucial.

People with diabetes are also especially at risk for complications related to sleep deficiency. According to the NHLBI, “Sleep also affects how your body reacts to insulin, the hormone that controls your blood glucose (sugar) level. Sleep deficiency results in a higher than normal blood sugar level, which may increase your risk for diabetes.”

There is also new research into the link between sleep deficiency and obesity among teenagers, with studies showing the risk for obesity increases with each hour of sleep lost. Furthermore, losing sleep affects your healthy balance of hormones that drive hunger (ghrelin and leptin). You might notice that when you are well rested you feel less hungry.

We all know the challenges of not sleeping enough, but what can we do to prevent this sleep deficit that is so prevalent? There are research studies that suggest mindfulness techniques are effective in controlling insomnia and struggles to sleep and popular practices often don’t work. That glass of wine or sleeping pill may actually backfire and disrupt your sleep and the circadian rhythm, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Next week we will explore some of the evidence-based techniques, and hear some real stories of how people are improving their sleep and their safety, emotional and physical well-being by getting a good night’s sleep, because Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! (Your Health Matters!).