Millions of Americans who think they are in good physical and mental shape ignore one important thing that is vital to health and well-being: millions of us are simply not getting enough sleep.
“The restorative nature of sleep is very important,” says Barbara Phillips, M.D., professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine.
So why are people not getting enough sleep? One of the main culprits is work. About one-third of American workers work third shifts or other odd hours, and many of them do not sleep well.
“Lifestyle choices can also rob you of sleep. People who have a ‘party’ lifestyle or consistently stay up late watching television, reading, or surfing the Internet may not get enough sleep,” Phillips says.
Consuming caffeine or alcohol or using nicotine too close to bedtime may affect sleep. People metabolize caffeine differently. Caffeine bothers some people and not others.
“People who are sensitive to caffeine really should not drink caffeine after lunchtime. Caffeine can delay and fragment sleep.”
Alcohol negatively affects the structure of sleep. People who consume alcohol may be able to fall asleep easily, but alcohol suppresses dream sleep. If you drink more alcohol than you can metabolize before bedtime, you can wake up with a sore throat or a pounding headache, have difficulty falling back asleep, or dream vividly.
Nicotine delays sleep onset and fractures sleep.
“Smoking is an independent risk factor for snoring. As long as you smoke, you will probably snore,” Phillips says.
While it is important to avoid bad habits in order to optimize your rest time, there are other things you can do if you are not getting enough sleep.
“Napping is good for you to a certain point. If you can’t get enough sleep at night, short, planned naps probably improve function.”
“Sleep improves mood, memory, and learning, and lack of sleep seems to negatively affect your immune system, memory, concentration, attention, and emotions. In different stages of sleep, wounds heal, physical growth occurs, and memories are sorted. All stages of sleep are needed, and it is important that they are uninterrupted.”
According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), 60 percent of adults report having sleep problems a few nights a week or more. More than 40 percent of adults experience daytime sleepiness severe enough to interfere with their daily activities at least a few days each month.
So how much sleep do we really need?
“Seven or eight hours of sleep are optimum for health. People who regularly sleep fewer than five or more than nine hours per night have been found to have higher rates of death and cardiovascular disease,” Phillips says.
If nothing seems to work for you and you continue to feel sluggish during waking hours, you may have a sleeping disorder, such as restless legs syndrome (RLS), insomnia, or sleep apnea, and should consult a physician.
RLS sufferers usually feel a “creepy crawling” sensation on their legs that goes away when they get up and move around. People who suffer from insomnia may have difficulty falling asleep, wake up frequently during the night with difficulty returning to sleep, wake up too early in the morning, or experience sleep that does not refresh the body and mind.
People who have sleep apnea, a very serious sleeping disorder, are at increased risk for car wrecks and cardiovascular disease. Sleep apnea’s victims are often obese. Weight loss can help, but most people have trouble accomplishing this. Standard treatment is a breathing machine at night called Continuous Positive Airway Pressure, or CPAP.
Remember that your lack of sleep can tragically affect others. The NSF reports that fatigue contributes to more than 100,000 police-reported highway crashes, causing 71,000 injuries and 1,500 deaths each year in the United States alone.
For more information about getting a good night’s sleep or sleeping disorders, visit the NSF Web site, www.sleepfoundation.org.