Sleep is a significant health concern and is just as vital to health as nutrition and exercise.
Unfortunately, sleep is often in short supply. We fill our schedules to the brim, trying to juggle all our responsibilities and various commitments.
Parents manage raising their kids and working their own jobs while still trying to maintain other activities and time for each other. Professionals put in long hours each week and then need to make time for family and have a social life.
Students have days full of classes, sports or activities with friends followed by late-night homework. We fill our lives with a frenzy of activity and collapse into bed exhausted, only to have the alarm wake us up a few hours later.
And those hours of sleep are precious. Getting enough sleep is vital to your health. Sleep enables your body to restore and rejuvenate itself. It sharpens your mind, improves your ability to regulate emotions, boosts your immune system and repairs muscle and skeletal tissue.
In fact, sleep is so important we cannot survive long without it. When a person is significantly sleep deprived, they will frequently experience microsleeps.
Microsleeps occur when the brain automatically shuts down, going into a sleep state that may last from a split second to half a minute, often without the person realizing it. This significantly affects alertness, concentration and performance.
Sleep deprivation can be especially dangerous on the road. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, more than 80,000 people fall asleep at the wheel each day and there are more than 250,000 sleep-related motor vehicle crashes each year.
A study from Stanford University showed that the reaction times of people who were tired from disrupted sleep, such as from sleep apnea, were as poor as people who were legally drunk. More research has found that people who drive after being awake 17 to 19 hours perform worse than those with a blood alcohol level of .05 percent.
Inadequate sleep impairs our attention and working memory, rendering us inefficient and causing us to feel tired and often irritable. It can also affect our long term memory and decision-making. The cognitive results of sleep deprivation can be staggering.
In addition to that, sleep deprivation can have other serious health consequences. Studies show people who regularly do not get enough sleep can become less sensitive to insulin, increasing their risk for diabetes.
Sleep deprivation leads to many hormonal imbalances affecting growth, hindering wound healing, increasing appetite and promoting fat storage. It is also associated with hypertension, increased stress hormone levels, heart disease and impaired immune function.
The effects of sleep deprivation are numerous but not without remedy. Several studies published in the journal Sleep suggest that getting extra sleep after a few days of deprivation can help pay back your sleep debt. While recovering you tend to sleep deeper and longer, allowing your body to make up some of the lost sleep.
But how much sleep you need to recover depends on how much sleep you've lost. The studies in sleep show that one night of recovery sleep is frequently not enough. Often, another night of recovery sleep or a nap is needed.
How can we get more sleep? The National Sleep Foundation suggests the following strategies:
Set a schedule. Go to bed and get up at the same time each day. Disrupting this schedule can lead to insomnia.
Exercise. Daily exercise often helps people sleep.
Avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol. Caffeine acts as a stimulant to keep you awake, and nicotine and alcohol rob you of deep sleep.
Relax before bed. Having a relaxing routine before bed can make it easier to fall asleep.
Control your room temperature. Extreme temperatures may disrupt sleep or prevent you from falling asleep.
See a doctor if your sleeping problem continues. If you constantly have trouble falling asleep or if you always feel tired the next day, then you may have a sleep disorder and should see a physician. Most sleep disorders can be treated effectively, so you can finally get that good night's sleep you need.
Suzie Strickler is an AmeriCorps volunteer working at the YMCA. She has a bachelor's degree in exercise science from Seattle Pacific University.