Sleep Deprivation Can Be Hazardous To Your Health!

by Jeanne Rhodes

There’s nothing better than awakening refreshed and rested after a good night’s sleep. Adequate and satisfying sleep not only feels good, it improves outlook, increases stress resistance and even enhances the strength of the immune system. But just when we need it most, during those times of extra challenges and demands, we are least likely to get it. Worries nag at us, we toss and turn, look at the clock, get upset and toss and turn some more.

Insomnia refers to a variety of sleep problems, including taking a long time to fall asleep, awakening often during the night, awakening too early in the morning, and feeling tired and dissatisfied with one’s sleep upon awakening.

Insomnia that continues for more than a few weeks may signal a problem that needs medical attention. Sleep problems can also be a side effect of certain medications, such as those prescribed for asthma. Ask your physician to adjust dosage if this is the case.

Fortunately, missing a good night’s sleep once in a while has no serious consequences, and most sleep problems last for a relatively short period of time, and go away on their own without treatment. Often simple lifestyle changes will do the trick. However, if you think eight hours of sleep is a luxury and six is enough to get you through, you might want to think again. Alexandros N. Vgontzas, MD, a professor of psychiatry at Penn State College of Medicine authored a study on the effects of sleep deprivation. Presented at a recent medical meeting, his study found that six hours of sleep is not optimal compared with eight. He found that two hours of sleep deprivation per night for one week is associated with increased sleepiness, decreased performance and activation of the inflammatory system. Vgontazas feels that most studies have focused on severe sleep deprivation rather than modest sleep restriction of six hours rather than eight. His studies found that moderately sleep-deprived people may be at increased risk of major health hazards such as cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis.

Something as simple as regular exercise improves the ability to fall asleep and to sleep more soundly. Exercise probably helps in several ways. Studies have shown that it decreases muscle tension and helps us relax physically. Exercise can also improve our ability to manage stress, to feel less worried and more in control. It increases stress resistance and our ability to handle challenges without letting them get under our skin, and keep us awake at night.

A regular schedule is essential since our bodies appreciate consistency. Go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time each day. Take naps only if they do not interfere with your nighttime sleep, and limit them to 20-30 minutes.

Caffeine is a popular drug and a common cause of sleep problems. Since it increases alertness and feelings of well being for most consumers, we tend to reach for a few extra cups of coffee, tea or caffeinated soda when sleep is a problem. This can perpetuate a cycle of poor sleep, fatigue, extra caffeine and more poor sleep. You know what to do. Cut down on your consumption and limit caffeine intake to the morning hours. Nicotine is also a stimulant. Better sleep is one more reason to quit smoking.

Many people believe alcohol will help them relax and go to sleep, but it actually disrupts the sleep cycle. While it may help you fall asleep, it usually produces light, restless sleep, and the sleeper often awakens suddenly during the night, unable to go back to sleep.

Sleep comes easily to those who go to bed with a relaxed mental attitude. Daily exercise contributes to such an attitude. So does relaxing for at least an hour before bed. Read, listen to music, knit a sweater, pet your cat. Avoid activities that wind you up.

Many people find bedtime relaxation techniques helpful. These techniques focus on inducing physical sensations associated with deep relaxation, such as feelings of warmth and heaviness in the arms and legs, and on mentally letting go.

Rhodes, B.A., M.A., is a Nutritionist, Wellness Lifestyle Strategist, Author and is Director of Rhodes Preventive Health Institute in Hagerstown, MD.