As I lay wide awake in bed one night, watching my digital clock flip from one number to the next, I recalled the advice of sleep experts: if you do not fall asleep in about 20 minutes, get up and do something relaxing, such as reading.
I didn’t feel like reading. I was thinking about some of the things that didn’t get done that day, so I decided to mix cookie dough and then clean the living room. As I caught up on some household tasks, I pondered whether I really needed my usual eight hours of “shuteye.” If I cut out two hours of sleep a day, I would have an extra 14 hours of productive time per week.
If I hadn’t been half asleep, I would have been thinking more clearly. Sleep is essential for healthy functioning. When we are asleep, our brain is still working as it passes through five stages of sleep.
Scientists have studied sleep deprivation and lifespan using rats as models. Rats that are completely deprived of one of the key phases of sleep (REM or rapid eye movement) lived as little as three weeks, while other rats with normal sleep patterns usually live two or more years.
To function at their best, most adults need seven or eight hours of sleep per day. Teens need about nine hours, and infants need upwards of 16 hours of sleep daily.
Too little sleep may play a role, in some cases, in weight gain. According to researchers, the appetite-managing natural hormones known as “leptin” and “ghrelin” are influenced by sleep patterns. One of the hormones signals your brain that you are full, while the other tells your brain you need to keep eating.
Insomnia may play a role in the development of diabetes, high blood pressure and depression and other forms of mental illness. Driving when sleep deprived is likened to driving under the influence of alcohol. Upwards of 100,000 accidents per year in the U.S. are linked to sleep-deprived drivers, according to a report by the National Institutes of Health.
Without adequate sleep, our ability to concentrate, remember and perform tasks accurately is decreased. Our mood and ability to interact socially can be affected by the lack of sleep.
If you cannot sleep very well, be sure to discuss the situation with your health-care provider and explore potential treatments. Remember that getting enough rest, eating a healthful diet and getting exercise all play key roles in maintaining health.
Here’s some tips from the National Sleep Foundation that may help you sleep better:
Maintain a sleep schedule, even on weekends. Monday mornings are made more difficult when sleep cycles are disturbed by staying up later than usual and sleeping in.
Avoid drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes and drinking caffeinated beverages (including coffee and cola) before bedtime. Chocolate also contains some caffeine, so be careful of your bedtime treats.
Relax before bedtime by reading a book or taking a warm bath.
Be sure your bedroom is at a comfortable temperature, not too hot or too cold.
– Julie Garden-Robinson, PhD, L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University
Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and associate professor in the
department of health, nutrition and exercise sciences.