Insomnia has reached epidemic proportions. It’s estimated to be the #1 health-related problem in America. More than 1/3 of Americans have trouble sleeping every night, and 43% of respondents report that daytime sleepiness interferes with their normal daytime activities.
These problems are getting worse, not better. The number of adults aged 20 to 44 using over-the-counter sleeping pills doubled from 2000 to 2004, and youth ages 1-19 who take prescription sleep remedies jumped 85% during the same period. Prescriptions for sleeping pills topped 56 million in 2008 – up 54% from 2004.
We have not only forgotten the value of rest, we have forgotten how to do it.
You cannot be healthy without adequate sleep. Period.
Unfortunately for us, the body hasn’t forgotten the importance of sleep. It’s absolutely essential for basic maintenance and repair of the neurological, endocrine, immune, musculoskeletal and digestive systems. The hormone melatonin naturally increases after sundown and during the night, which helps protect us against infection.
Among other things, a full night’s sleep:
- enhances memory and mental clarity
- improves athletic performance
- boosts mood and overall energy
- improves immune function
- increases stress tolerance
When things fall apart: how sleep deprivation impacts your health
Fewer than 6 hours of sleep per day is associated with low-grade chronic inflammation and worsening insulin resistance, as well as increased risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease (CVD).
Inadequate rest impairs our ability to think, to handle stress, to maintain a healthy immune system and to moderate our emotions. It’s associated with heart disease, hypertension, weight gain, diabetes and a wide range of psychiatric disorders including depression and anxiety.
The following is an abbreviated list of some of the more damaging effects of sleep deprivation:
- Impaired immune system: a study from the University of California found that even modest sleep loss weakens the immune systems response to disease and injury.
- Overweight and obesity: Recent studies have shown that even one night of poor sleep can result in dramatic changes in appetite and food intake. Others have shown that restricting sleep to 5 hours a night for just one week impairs carbohydrate tolerance and insulin sensitivity. Researchers now believe that sleep deprivation is the single best predictor of overweight and obesity in children – which has become an alarming problem. Finally, a brand-new study shows that not getting enough sleep causes liver disease.
- Cognitive decline: sleep deprivation negatively impacts short-term memory, long-term memory and the degeneration of nerve cells – all of which effects our ability to think clearly and function well.
- Mood and mental health: anyone who has had a few nights of poor sleep can tell you that insomnia is associated with depression. Insufficient sleep shuts down the pre-frontal cortex and can cause or exacerbate a number of psychological conditions, ranging from anxiety to PTSD to depression.
- Systemic inflammation: as I already mentioned above, sleep deprivation causes chronic, moderate inflammation.
How to get a good night’s sleep? Read on…
The most important factor in getting a good night’s sleep is managing stress during the day. Most of us run around like chickens with their heads cut off all day, and then wonder why we can’t fall right asleep as soon as our head hits the pillow. If our nervous system has been in overdrive for 16 hours, it’s unrealistic to assume that it can switch into low gear in a matter of minutes simply because we want it to.
Before we get into natural tips on improving sleep, I want to say a few words about sleep medications. In spite of their popularity, they are not without risk – including dependence, rebound insomnia, drowsiness, memory loss, bizarre sleep walking behavior, changes in brain chemistry, constipation and much more.
On the other hand, there is a point at which the harmful effects of sleep deprivation start to outweigh the potential adverse effects caused by sleeping pills. This is when I believe sleep meds should be used as a last resort, presuming all non-drug approaches have failed. One of the common responses after beginning chiropractic care is drastically improved nightly sleep.
Reduce your exposure to artificial light
Artificial light disrupts our sleep/wake cycle. Just a single ‘pulse’ of artificial light at night disrupts this cycle, which can not only impact our sleep, but also increase our risk of cancer. Another study showed that the blue light emitted from alarm clocks and other digital devices can affect the sleep cycle by increasing melatonin levels.
Follow these tips to avoid light exposure:
- Don’t use a computer for 2 hours before going to bed. No staying up late on Facebook and Twitter!
- Use blackout shades to make your bedroom pitch black.
- Cover your digital alarm clock or get an analog clock.
- Turn off all digital devices that glow or give off any type of light.
- Use a sleep mask.
Don’t be too full – or too hungry
Some people sleep better after eating a light dinner. This is especially true for those with digestive issues. Others – like those with a tendency toward low blood-sugar levels – do better with a snack before bed (and possibly even during the night).
Go to bed earlier
You’ve all heard the saying “an hour before midnight is worth two hours after”. It turns out there is some truth to that. When you fall asleep, you go through a 90-minute cycle of non-REM sleep followed by REM sleep. But the ratio of non-REM to REM sleep within those 30 minute cycles changes across the night. In the early part of the night (11pm – 3am), the majority of those cycles are composed of deep non-REM sleep and very little REM sleep. In the second half of the night (i.e. 3am – 7am) this balance changes, such that the 90-minute cycles are comprised of more REM sleep (the stage associated with dreaming) as well as a lighter form of non-REM sleep.
What’s important about this is that the cycles with more REM sleep is where our body regenerates and repairs tissue and engages in other restorative processes. If we don’t get enough deep sleep, we can’t rejuvenate and heal.
So you say you’re a night owl?
Patients often tell me they’re “naturally” night owls, and they’ve always preferred to stay up late and sleep in. But in truth there’s nothing natural about this. For millions of years of human evolution sleep patterns remained in synch with the daily variation in light exposure. We rose with the sun, and went to be soon after sundown. This is what our bodies are adapted for.
In almost all cases, having a lot of energy late into the night is a sign of a disrupted sleep rhythm. Normally, the hormone cortisol should be high in the morning and decrease throughout the day and into the evening. This gives us the energy we need to wake up in the morning, and allows us to start winding down after dark so we’re ready to sleep. In people who’ve been exposed to significant chronic stress, this rhythm goes haywire. They have low cortisol in the morning (which makes it very hard for them to get going) and high cortisol at night, which gives them that late second wind. While drinking several cups of coffee in the morning alleviates the morning fatigue to some degree, it also perpetuates the pattern by revving them up in the afternoon and evening.