When I recently read this sentence in a journal article, "For optimal health, sleep is as important as diet and exercise," I thought, really? Who knew sleep was on the same level of importance as diet and exercise, and why? What has changed in the research?
We generally know when we sleep the body is recharging, or revitalizing itself. But researchers from the University of Washington's Medical Sleep Center are the first to show suppressed immune gene expression in chronic sleep deprivation. They compared adult identical twins, and found the one who regularly slept less was sick the most. This supports earlier research that showed when giving sleep deprived subjects a rhinovirus they were more likely to catch a cold.
Who is sleep deprived? According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25% of American adults report insufficient sleep at least 15 days out of the month. The recommendation for adults is 7-9 hours of sleep, however 30% of the working population gets less than six hours per night. Children require 9-11 hours of sleep per night.
Adequate sleep is essential for:
- Fighting off infection
- Supporting the metabolism of blood sugar to prevent diabetes
- Performing well in school
- Behavioral self-regulation in preschool and school-aged children
- Working effectively and safely
Sleep disorders and chronic low sleep are associated with an increased risk of:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Obesity (due to increased hunger hormone and excess carbohydrate intake)
- Diabetes (resulting from impaired glucose tolerance)
Sleep-disordered breathing (SDB), which includes sleep apnea, is another serious threat to health. SDB is characterized by erratic airway obstruction or pauses in breathing. People with untreated SDB have two to four times the risk of heart attack and stroke. Obesity is a significant risk factor for SDB, and weight loss is recommended.
How to improve sleep and sleep quality:
- Limit caffeine and alcohol intake, and avoid caffeine after noon.
- Avoid nicotine, another stimulant. Nicotine and alcohol affect sleep quality.
- Avoid nighttime exercise less than three hours before bed.
- Avoid large meals less than four hours before bed.
- Check medications for sleep side effects, especially pain relievers with caffeine, decongestants, steroids and beta-blockers.
- Stick to a sleep routine. Go to bed and rise roughly the same times daily, including weekends.
- For children, routine is key. Bath, book reading, and bedtime at the same time each night.
- Get 30 minutes of sun exposure, preferably with exercise, daily.
- Exercise 30-60 minutes most days.
- Keep your bedroom dark, cool and quiet.
- Avoid watching TV or reading on a computer or tablet 1 hour before bed.
- Take naps if needed, but avoid after 3:00 pm.
The bottom line from the researchers at the University of Washington: "There is no substitute for sleep."