By Gina Castro
Sleep. It’s the thing people spend an average 26 years doing in a lifetime, and another seven years are spent tossing and turning trying to fall asleep. Sleep is a natural, necessary condition of rest for the body and mind. One of sleep’s vital roles is to consolidate memories, a process where information and experiences are transformed into long-term memories. That’s why children, who are developing language, motor and social skills, need more sleep than adults. Children need additional sleep to consolidate all of the new information they are absorbing day-to-day.
Sleep heals the body, rebuilds the immune system and regulates bodily functions through hormones. Sleep is necessary for optimal health and well being. Insufficient sleep can lead to many health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. Lack of sleep and even poor quality of sleep causes forgetfulness, irritability, poor concentration and increased susceptibility to colds and viruses. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults sleep 7 to 9 hours a night, teenagers need between 8 to 10 hours, younger children need 9 to 11 hours and one-year-olds need roughly 11 to 14 hours.
Even losing a single hour of sleep can be detrimental. The University of California found that the morning after daylight savings, which is when we lose an hour of sleep, there is a 25 percent increase in heart attacks. But when daylight savings ends and we gain an hour of sleep, heart attacks drop by 21 percent.
Sleep deprivation can also impact your mental health. A study published in Nature Human Behaviour, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, found that sleep deprivation provokes anxiety symptoms. Eti Ben Simon, a neuroscientist and the author of the study, said that people who suffer from poor sleep or insomnia are two times more likely to develop an anxiety disorder than people who sleep well.
Simon also found that sleep deprivation can affect people’s social lives. In her study, Simon’s sleep deprived participants preferred that other people keep a greater distance from them. Simon saw that the brain networks that regulate personal space were far more active in her sleep deprived participants. Normally, a person’s personal space is within arms reach, but people who are sleep deprived have a much larger personal bubble.
Sleep Health, which is headed by the American Sleep Apnea Association, estimates that 50 to 70 million Americans of all ages and classes are affected by sleep-related problems. The National Institutes of Health predicts that America’s lack of sleep will continue to increase and estimates it will affect more than 100 million by the middle of the 21st century. Sleep Health postulates that technology use is one of the reasons more Americans are sleep deprived. The following statement is from the Sleep Health website:
“The odds of being sleep deprived (less than 6 hours a night for adults) has increased significantly over the past 30 years as the lines between work and home have become blurred and digital technology has firmly become part of our lifestyles. National data shows that poor sleep health is a common problem with 25 percent of U.S. adults reporting insufficient sleep or rest at least 15 out of every 30 days.”
The Sleep Health Foundation reports that bright lights from screens, such as cell phones and televisions, block the release of melatonin, a hormone the body produces to regulate the sleep wake cycle, after only 1.5 hours of use in the evening, so it’s important to limit screen time before bed in order to get a restful sleep. A survey from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) found that 88 percent of adults in the U.S. have chosen to postpone their bedtime so that they can watch more television shows. That percentage increases to 95 percent for adults between 18 and 44 years old. Postponing sleep can lead to increased issues with sleep. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that people who binge-watch television shows exhibited increased symptoms of insomnia, poor sleep quality and alertness before sleep. AASM recommends turning off electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime.
Technology isn’t the only challenge preventing people from a good night’s sleep. The American Sleep Association found that sleep disorders affect about 50 to 70 million U.S. adults. A sleep disorder is a condition that disrupts sleep for an extended period of time. Some of the most common sleep disorders are obstructive sleep apnea and insomnia. The AASM estimates that nearly 30 million U.S. adults have obstructive sleep apnea, a sleep disorder where breathing is interrupted for 10 seconds or more at a time. If left untreated, obstructive sleep apnea can more than double your chances of dying from heart disease. AASM estimates that 23.5 Americans have undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea.
There are five warning signs for sleep apnea: snoring, choking during sleep, daytime sleepiness, obesity (BMI of 30 or higher) and high blood pressure. If you or someone you know is experiencing these symptoms, consult a medical provider or an AASM accredited sleep center at sleepeducation.org/find-a-facility.
Insomnia is the most common sleep complaint. It affects about 30 to 35 percent of adults at some point in their lives and about 8 to 10 percent chronically. Insomnia causes difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. Chronic insomnia, which is when sleep is disrupted for months or years at time, is linked to increased risk of heart failure, depression and anxiety.
AASM found that the peaks and crashes in blood sugar are responsible for triggering insomnia. A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a diet with a high amount of refined carbohydrates, such as pasta and white rice, increases the chances of developing insomnia. However, foods with a low glycemic index, such as fruits, vegetables and nuts, raise the blood sugar at a slower rate, which prevents the blood sugar from crashing. Although making changes to your diet and practicing good sleep hygiene may benefit insomnia, you should also consult a medical provider or a sleep center.
Now, in this stressful situation where the coronavirus is spreading across the U.S., it’s even more important to get a good night’s sleep. Poor sleep can increase stress levels and lower your immunity, which can make you more susceptible to colds and viruses. Refer to the side bar 10 Commandments of Healthy Sleep, which was written by Sleep Health, for tips on how you can improve your sleep.