September 12, 2012

Are You Getting Enough Sleep?

If you want to be healthy, you know you've got to eat more greens and hit the gym. But did you know that cuddling your pillow a little longer also does you good?

While it's not a new discovery that sleep makes us feel better, in the past several years medical research has shown that slumber has a much bigger impact on our overall health and fitness than just keeping away those under-eye bags.

The problem is that, in the midst of our hectic, workaholic lives, getting enough rest tends to be a low priority.

In fact, a study published this month in the journal SLEEP confirms that time spent punching the clock has the biggest effect on how much a person sleeps. The more hours a person works, the less sleep he or she gets, says Dr. Mathias Basner, a research associate at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the study.

"In a culture that puts a premium on people who work hard, get a lot done and don't take time off, and where we provide the means for them to work and be entertained all of the time, the message goes out that [sleep] isn't important," says Dr. Lawrence Epstein, medical director of Sleep HealthCenters, a network of specialized sleep medicine centers, and author of The Harvard Medical School Guide to a Good Night's Sleep. "That's the wrong message."The irony, experts say, is that the less sleep you get, the worse you're bound to perform at work.

Restless RisksBeyond work effects, most people don't realize what insufficient sleep can do to their health.
During the various stages of sleep, a lot more is happening than we realize. Our blood pressure drops, blood supply to our relaxed muscles increases, tissue growth and repair occurs and our energy levels are restored, according to the National Sleep Foundation. If you have a sleep disorder or you're just not making sleep a priority, you're at a greater risk for cardiovascular disease and hypertension.

Not getting enough rest can impair the body's ability to use insulin, predisposing us to diabetes and obesity, says Dr. Carol Ash, a board-certified sleep and pulmonary specialist and medical director of the New Jersey-based Somerset Medical Center's Sleep for Life Center.

The Magic NumberWhile the amount people need varies, experts say adults should get seven to nine hours per night. Regardless of the numbers, if you're dragging yourself out of bed in the morning, fighting off the need to nap in the afternoon or falling asleep watching TV, you're probably not getting enough.

To figure out what you need, during your next vacation Epstein suggests going to bed at the same time every night and sleeping in. After a few days you should start waking up at the same time and have an idea of how much sleep your body demands.

Carving out that kind of time for sleep in your daily life, though, is another story, and every time we miss a few hours we accumulate sleep debt. Sleeping six hours a night for two weeks will create the same degree of sleep deprivation as staying up for 48 hours, Epstein says. And, despite popular belief, your body doesn't adapt to getting insufficient sleep.

Instead, he says, "you just keep getting sleepier and sleepier."

Sleep SaboteursEven when you have time to devote to sleep, you could be unknowingly sabotaging its quality by eating or drinking too close to bedtime, or slumbering in imperfect conditions.

Devices such as Innovative Sleep Solutions' Sleeptracker Pro, available this fall, could help you pinpoint the problem. Worn as a watch, it records the average time between your restless moments during the night. The longer the stretch is between these moments, the more restful your sleep. Upload the data to your PC and you can input factors such as a late dinner, a strenuous workout or alcohol intake, which might have had an impact. It shouldn't take long before a pattern appears, says Lee Loree, the product's developer and managing partner of Innovative Sleep Solutions.

Making your bedroom slumber friendly also can improve the quality of your sleep overnight, says Dr. Rubin Naiman, director of sleep programs at Miraval Resort, Tucson. He suggests sleeping in a darkly painted room, using organic sheets that won't irritate your skin or respiratory system, setting the room at 68 degrees, removing the TV and all LED lights and installing light bulbs that lack blue light rays, which suppress sleep promoting melatonin.

No EscapeOf course if you continue putting off a good night's sleep, you may not see the negative health effects right away. But the impact, experts say, will catch up with you eventually.

"As we get older, we are less and less resilient, especially past 40," Ash says. "Not adhering to sleep rules will really wreak havoc."

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