Have you ever stared at your bedroom ceiling and counted past sheep No. 500? Have you suffered through countless late-night infomercials in hopes of boring yourself back to sleep? Or have you fought off an unplanned noon nap at your desk, just wishing there were such a thing as a coffee IV you could hook up to your arm?
Poor sleep is no laughing matter. In fact, research studies show convincingly that a good night's sleep can do much more than put pep in your step and a smile on your face. A rough night can cause -- or contribute to -- more serious health conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, obesity and even stroke.
Most adults need about seven to nine hours of sleep to be primed for a productive day and to keep vital systems up and running. When you can achieve this consistently, you benefit from a more photographic-like memory, clarity in thought and decision-making, as well as healthy cardiovascular, immune and endocrine systems. On the other hand, hours spent tossing and turning night after night can put these vital functions in jeopardy.
Stanford University researchers came to an interesting conclusion when examining a group of student athletes who consistently aimed for 10 hours of sleep each night. In addition to experiencing markedly less daytime fatigue, the football players were able to substantially improve their drill times, creating the kind of edge that recruiters seek.
Turning back the clock a few years to preschool: A federal study looked at the sleep habits of 8,000 families with 4-year-olds. The results showed that homes with established bedtime rules ("Lights off by 8 p.m.!") had smarter kids. In other words, these preschoolers scored higher on language and math tests than those hailing from households with more lax attitudes about bedtime.
Your body's natural sleep-wake rhythm programs you to drag a bit come mid-afternoon, and I don't need to tell you how much more this 3 p.m. slump can be compounded by a bad night's sleep. But for millions of Americans, that bad night's sleep means there is more to worry about than next-day irritability and weariness.
For example, sleep apnea sufferers have long been known to be at increased risk for heart disease and high blood pressure. A new study on sleep and heart health, detailed in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, shows that those with sleep apnea -- a condition that causes you to repeatedly stop breathing from a few seconds up to a minute at a time -- are also at increased risk for stroke. This is especially true for men. Moreover, chronic insomnia and sleep apnea can lead to obesity, diabetes, increased alcohol use and depression if left untreated. Thousands die each year in workplace accidents and from drowsy driving.
If you snore regularly and experience daytime drowsiness, you should consult your doctor. In fact, any chronic sleep condition, defined as lasting longer than one month, should be addressed with your primary-care physician.
Even if you don't have a chronic sleep condition, but are simply someone who occasionally spends too much of the night incredulously staring at the alarm clock, here are some simple tips to try:
- no big meals and no alcohol three hours before bedtime;
- cutting off the caffeine intake early in the afternoon;
- starting a regular exercise regimen -- at least three days a week;
- limiting lights and noise in the bedroom (banish the TV);
- and trying meditation, yoga or deep-breathing techniques before bedtime.
Sleep is an important part of your health. It affects much more than your disposition. Making sure you give yourself the best chance to recharge, refresh and renew will profoundly improve your quality of life -- both tomorrow morning and for years to come.
Dr. Leon Spiers is a physician with PartnerMD, a Richmond-based medical practice specializing in concierge-style primary care and executive physicals. To learn more, call (804) 237-8282