From your skin to your job to your relationships, sleep affects everything. But these days, more of us are sleep-deprived than not. It's such a big problem that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declared it a public health epidemic — similar to the warnings issued about smoking cigarettes decades ago.
Here are a few ways not sleeping is hurting you.
It's making you sick.
After just one night of skimping on sleep, you'll experience changes in mood, headache, and hormone imbalances. One week of sleeping fewer than six hours a night can result in changes to more than 700 genes. Men's brains after not sleeping for just one night show changes indicative of brain shrinkage and damage similar to a brain injury. Yikes! Ongoing insufficient sleep is linked with a laundry list of diseases including heart disease, diabetes, depression, early death, and a higher risk for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, stroke, some cancers, and multiple sclerosis.
It's making you fat.
Not getting enough sleep also contributes to packing on the pounds. After a night of insufficient sleep, people have higher levels of the hunger hormone and decreased levels of the fullness hormone. When people aren't getting enough sleep, they tend to reach for high-calorie carbs and don't have the impulse control to turn down that piece of cake.
It's making you stupid.
Lack of sleep slows down your thinking, impairs your memory, concentration, judgment, and decision-making, and impedes learning. During sleep your brain is busy processing information, consolidating memories, making connections, and clearing out toxins. When asleep, your brain does its housekeeping and not having adequate time to do this could potentially accelerate neurodegenerative diseases. Not getting enough sleep may actually shrink your brain.
The anatomy of sleep.
Sleep needs vary, but generally everyone needs seven to nine hours a night for their brain and body to perform best. And while the number of horizontal hours is important, the quality of your sleep is, too. Several times each night, your brain cycles through different stages of sleep, which determine the quality of your sleep. After an initial five to ten minutes in stage one, your brain moves into a deeper stage two, and over the next hour it goes to stages three and four, in which the electrical activity slows way down. After slow-wave sleep, your brain progresses into REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, in which it becomes a lot more active.
Your brain runs through the all the sleep cycles sequentially about every 90 minutes, then starts over again at the beginning. So, if you don’t sleep contiguously, your snooze is less restorative to your brain. You'll feel it the next day even though the number of hours you slept may be OK.
Quality sleep is about good habits.
To get quality Zs, you need to practice good sleep hygiene.
Some good sleep hygiene habits are:
- Don't nap during the day.Although I do love my naps, if you're having trouble sleeping at night, it's probably not a good idea. Naps can disturb your normal pattern of sleep and wakefulness.
- Avoid caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol too close to bedtime.Even if you can fall asleep with a caffeine buzz, caffeine disrupts the sleep cycle and reduces the quality of your sleep. While alcohol can speed up the onset of sleep, it disrupts sleep later as the body begins to metabolize the alcohol, causing arousal. And remember, chocolate and many other foods have caffeine.
- Exercise early and often.Physical activity improves sleep by helping to synchronize circadian rhythms, reducing stress, decreasing REM sleep, and causing many favorable neurochemical changes in your brain. However, exercising too close to bedtime can rev you up and keep you awake. Vigorous exercise is best in the morning or late afternoon. A relaxing exercise, like yoga, can be done before bed without problem.
- Limit food and drink before sleep.Stay away from large meals close to bedtime as digestion can interfere with sleep. Also, dietary changes can cause sleep problems. If you are struggling with a sleep issue, it's probably not a good time to start experimenting with spicy dishes.
- Get more natural light.Getting out in the sunshine during your day will boost serotonin, a neurochemical, which improves melatonin release, allowing your brain to shut down and sleep. Avoid bright lights and electronic screens after the sun goes down.
- Establish a regular bedtime routine.This can be brushing your teeth, washing your face, or reading for a few minutes. Meditating or praying is a great bedtime ritual. Try to avoid heavy conversations and emotional activities before bed. Make it a rule not to bring your problems to bed with you. You need a calm brain for quality sleep.
- Associate your bed with sleep.It's not a good idea to use your bed to surf the net, check your phone, watch TV, or listen to music. (Sex is OK though!) If you use the space only for sleeping, your brain will associate it with sleep.
- Ensure that your sleep environment is relaxing and free of disturbances.Make sure your bed is comfortable and the room temperature isn't too hot or cold. An uncomfortable brain is an active brain. It will also help if your bedroom is really dark with no LEDs emitting light to disturb your subconscious brain. White noise is OK, but other noise, like a TV or music, will hurt your sleep quality because your brain registers it even if it doesn't wake you.
Debbie Hampton recovered from decades of unhealthy thinking and depression, a suicide attempt, and resulting brain injury to become an educational and inspirational writer. On her website, The Best Brain Possible, Debbie shares how she rebuilt her brain and life to find joy and thrive. She is the author of Sex, Suicide and Serotonin: Taking Myself Apart, Putting Myself Back Together.