Written by Dr. Carlene Wilson
One hundred years ago, the average American slept almost nine hours every night. Today, with factories running non-stop, 24-hour television programming, and stores that stay open all night, Americans average about seven hours of sleep per night. Many circumstances rob us of our sleep. When both parents in a family are working all day, household chores, children’s homework, and social activities must be crammed into the evening hours. Suburban living means a long daily commute for many workers, with less time at home to relax. Nighttime entertainment such as television, video games, and social networking on the Internet eats up hours that would otherwise be spent in sleep. Add to that a strong work ethic that frowns on laziness and encourages people to sacrifice sleep in order to accomplish more.
Your brain and your body are not idle, however, while you sleep. During those hours, your body does most of its repair work, rebuilding muscle tissue, and restoring the body’s energy supplies. We know that the body secretes growth hormone during sleep. During periods of deepest sleep, blood flow is directed away from the brain towards the rest of the body. While you sleep, your brain organizes and processes new information you have learned during the previous day, establishes neural connections that strengthen your memory, and produces chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine that improve your mood during the day. A good night’s sleep is not a luxury, it is a necessity if you want to feel and perform your best.
An estimated 20% of all adults do not get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation is linked with health problems including diabetes, heart disease, and weakened immune responses; and with increased risk for depression and substance abuse. Lack of sleep also diminishes a person’s ability to pay attention, react to signals or remember new information. The annual economic impact of sleep-related accidents in the U.S. is estimated at between $43 and $56 billion.
Lack of sleep can also make you fat. A national poll of 1,000 adults in 2008 conducted by the National Sleep Foundation found that respondents who slept less than six hours on weekdays were significantly more likely to be obese than those who regularly slept eight hours or more. Several studies have linked sleep deprivation with higher body mass index (BMI) in both adults and children. The amount of time you sleep directly affects levels of leptin, a hormone that suppresses appetite, and ghrelin, a hormone produced by the stomach that stimulates appetite. People who sleep less than eight hours tend to have lower levels of leptin and higher levels of ghrelin in their bodies. Sleep deprivation is also associated with central body fat distribution.
The amount of sleep a person needs to lead a happy and productive life varies with age, level of physical activity, and genetic characteristics. Newborn babies sleep 12 – 18 hours per day, dropping to 14 – 15 hours of sleep after 3 months. Preschoolers need 11 – 13 hours of sleep, elementary school students about 10 – 11 hours, and teens 8.5 – 9.25 hours. Adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night. Sleep patterns also vary with age: young children often nap during the daytime, and elderly people sleep more lightly with frequent interruptions. An adolescent is typically a “night person,” lively and alert late at night and sleepy at 8:00 in the morning.
Take a moment to assess your sleep habits. How many hours do you sleep every night? Do you wake up feeling refreshed? Does anything prevent you from sleeping or interrupt your sleep during the night?
Here are some tips for getting the most out of your sleep time:
- Set aside 8 hours for sleeping every day. Schedule sleep time just like you schedule other activities and appointments. Sleep should not be what you do after you have finished all your other activities. Curtail some activities, if necessary, to make time for sleep.
- Establish and maintain a set time for going to bed and waking, even on weekends. Avoid napping during the day as much as possible. Limit naps to less than 30 minutes and do not nap 3- 4 hours before bedtime.
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol and spicy or heavy foods 3 - 4 hours before bedtime. Exercise regularly, but ideally at least three hours before bedtime.
- Use comfortable bedding appropriate for the season and keep the bedroom at a cool temperature. Block out as much noise and light as possible. If necessary, use ear plugs or “white noise machines” and room darkening shades.
- Reserve your bedroom mainly for sleep and relaxation, and keep your computer and television somewhere else in the home. If your pet shares your bed, it may disturb your sleep with its movements.
- Establish a routine for winding down before bedtime by reading, doing a hobby or watching a favorite television show.
- Relax in a hot bath for 30 minutes before bedtime.
- Avoid eating a large meal just before bedtime. If you are hungry, have a light snack such as a glass of warm milk, a peanut butter sandwich, whole-grain cereal with low-fat milk or yogurt, a banana or a cup of chamomile tea.
- If stress and worry interfere with your sleep, practice relaxation techniques 15–30 minutes before bedtime, such as yoga or deep breathing exercises. Keep a pad and pencil by your bed and write down your concerns to deal with tomorrow.
- Distract your mind from worrying thoughts with light reading or word puzzles until your body has relaxed enough to fall asleep.
- If you regularly wake up feeling fatigued instead of refreshed, you may suffer from a sleep disorder. Sleep disorders have a variety of causes and include insomnia, sleep apnea, acid reflux disease or heartburn, muscular twitches and jerks, chronic pain, and nocturia (frequent urination during the night). When your sleep is constantly interrupted your body is not able to replenish and refresh itself. Consult your physician for diagnosis and management of sleep disorders.
- Children may suffer from sleep deprivation because of the demands placed on them by school activities and homework, because they stay up late to watch television or play video games, or because they have to get up early to go to school or daycare. If you observe your child struggling with fatigue and irritability, it may be necessary to curtail some activities and impose a bedtime regime.