Why You're Probably Doing Sleep All Wrong: A Doctor Explains
In this Internet era, you can outsource almost every activity to the web — whether it's banking, grocery shopping, or even doctor visits via telemedicine.
However, as much as digital technology has replaced many services previously done in person, there are some activities I cannot ever see being replaced by a computer. There are just some areas you can't "hack."
Most important among them: sleep.
From a health perspective, sleep remains a vital primitive need that we share with all creatures. It's an opportunity to repair damage done during the day and begin each day with a fresh supply of DNA, mitochondria, antioxidants, and detoxification pathways.
If you're cutting corners on pillow time, you're unlikely to reach your goal of a cleaner, leaner body — no matter how many juice cleanses you do.
Many studies in large populations of adults have identified getting seven hours of sleep to be a health goal as important as nutrition, fitness, and stress management. Indeed, sleep is the foundation of success for those other three pillars of wellness.
Now, new research shows that maintaining a regular sleep schedule might be even more important than previously thought. In fact, catching up on sleep on the weekends, as many of us tend to do, might be to no advantage at all.
Scientists studied more than 400 healthy adults and had them wear a digital device to track sleep times. They identified the midpoint of subjects' sleep cycle during workdays and off days. Going to bed late and sleeping in on some days, such as during the weekend, or what's called "social jetlag," would shift the midpoint to later in the night.
So what were the consequences of moving that midpoint to later than on most other days? After adjusting for many variables, the researchers found that shifting sleep times resulted in:
- A lower HDL (protective) cholesterol level
- A higher fasting insulin level (a sign of insulin resistance and prediabetes)
- A higher triglyceride level (another health bummer, since a high level is linked to an increased risk of heart disease)
- A higher degree of body fat (no explanation needed here)
This new understanding of sleep has important consequences. There are almost 30 million Americans struggling with diabetes mellitus and more than one-third of the population is obese. And it's been previously shown that major changes in sleep patterns for shift workers (such as nurses and firefighters) can increase the risk of cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
The findings shown here — that even small variations in sleep patterns can affect measures of wellness in otherwise healthy people — has large implications for how much we can really control our sleep and social lives without doing harm.
Recently, the belief that our ancestors routinely went to bed at dusk and woke at dawn has been challenged. But there is no doubt that in our modern world, we have many more opportunities to vary our sleep thanks to work and social calendars.
The bottom line: Social jetlag, and the health consequences that result from varying your sleep habits, now joins excessive sitting and other unhealthy aspects of modern life as a call to retain some primitive habits.
We should all aim for a “caveman- or cavewoman-like” regular seven hours of restorative sleep each night.
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