Many people focus on eating right, exercising regularly and getting annual checkups; yet they ignore the single biggest factor in achieving all-around good health—getting enough sleep.
Fifty to 70 million people struggle with a sleeping disorder, and one out of every three adults gets less than the recommended seven hours of sleep each night, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Fatigue, irritability and mental dullness are well-known side effects of being low on sleep, but the consequences go far beyond our mental and emotional state, according to Dr. Rajkumar Dasgupta, assistant professor of clinical medicine at Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California and fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
“Chronic sleep deprivation has a negative impact on virtually every organ system in the body,” says Dasgupta. “When you’re sleep deprived, certain stress hormones get released, the classic one being cortisol. When you have elevated levels of stress hormones, your blood pressure and blood sugar levels go up, putting you at higher risk for high blood pressure and diabetes. High stress hormone levels may also suppress your immune system, making your body susceptible to illness.”
Being low on sleep may even cause you to put on some extra weight. When you’re sleep deprived, it disrupts the hormonal balance of leptin and ghrelin, which increases your appetite and slows down your metabolism. Research also shows that people who suffer from insomnia are more likely to indulge in late-night snacking, especially on high-calorie, high-fat foods that contribute to weight gain.
Here are a few tips to help you improve your sleep and overall health:
- Exercise regularly at moderate intensity.
- Maintain a consistent bedtime, even on weekends.
- Avoid eating and drinking close to bedtime to prevent heartburn and having to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.
- Limit alcohol and caffeine.
- Keep electronics out of your bed.
- If you can’t fall asleep after being in bed for 15 to 20 minutes, leave the bedroom and do a non-stimulating activity in dim lighting.
If you’re getting seven to eight hours of sleep each night but not waking up feeling refreshed and well-rested, you may be one of 25 million Americans suffering from obstructive sleep apnea. If you have chronic sleep problems or suspect you may have sleep apnea, Dasgupta suggests seeing your primary care doctor or a sleep medicine specialist.