New guidelines stress the importance of getting enough shut-eye.
Many people think of sleep as a luxury or a necessary evil — as downtime that interferes with their ability to get more things done in a day. The reality is that a good night’s sleep is vital to our physical and mental well-being. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers insufficient sleep to be a public health epidemic linked to disease, injury, and reduced quality of life.
“Sleep deprivation is a really common problem,” according to neurologist Michael Howell, MD, who specializes in sleep disorders at the University of Minnesota Medical Center in Minneapolis. The CDC estimates that 70 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep problems, and some 40 percent of adults have had symptoms of insomnia, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) recently issued guidelines on what constitutes a good night’s sleep. The AASM recommends seven or more hours of sleep a night for healthy adults. Less than six hours of sleep is considered inadequate, and there is no statement as to how much sleep may be too much.
“Hopefully, with these new recommendations, we can begin a new conversation about the importance of sleep and elevate it to the same level as diet and exercise,” says Nathaniel Fletcher Watson, MD, a neurologist and sleep specialist at the University of Washington in Seattle. Dr. Watson was part of a panel of sleep experts who reviewed more than 5,300 research articles to draw up the guidelines, jointly issued by the AASM and the Sleep Research Society (SRS).
“It was clear that six hours [of sleep] is not good enough,” Watson says. “But when we looked at nine hours or more, there was general uncertainty as to whether or not there could be a thing as too much sleep, so there is no upper limit.”
“We have found that people with diabetes who also have worse sleep quality have more difficulty controlling their blood sugar than people with diabetes who report sleeping well,” says Kristen Knutson, PhD, assistant professor in pulmonary and critical care at the University of Chicago. “Short sleep and poor sleep quality are associated with an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure.”
The AASM and SRS statement says that insufficient sleep “is also associated with impaired immune function, increased pain, impaired performance, increased errors, and greater risk of accidents.”
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The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke lists memory problems, trouble making decisions, and difficultly controlling emotions among the effects of sleep deprivation.
In a study published in the July 2015 issue of the journal Cell, researchers at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) in Florida found that sleep improves memory retention by blocking signaling activity from the brain chemical dopamine. “Our findings add compelling evidence to support the model that sleep reduces the forgetting signal in the brain, thereby keeping memories intact,” according to Ron Davis, PhD, chair of the TSRI department of neuroscience and senior author of the study.
If you think you may not be getting enough sleep, here are five things to consider:
1. Make sleep a priority. “Too many people think sleep is for ‘slackers’ and that being sleep-deprived is a sign of a hard worker,” Dr. Knutson says. “That needs to change. Sleep should be considered one of the three pillars of a healthy lifestyle, along with diet and exercise.”
2. Exercise early in the day. Research has shown that regular moderate to vigorous physical activity can provide a significant improvement in sleep quality. When you work out matters. The National Sleep Foundation suggests avoiding exercise right before bedtime, because a boost in body temperature can interfere with getting to sleep.
3. Switch off electronics. “Turning off the TV and your phone is an easy and free way to instantly improve your quality of sleep,” Watson says. A November 2014 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, for example, found that evening use of devices like e-readers suppresses levels of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin.
4. Sleep aids are not a permanent fix. According to the CDC, 4 percent of adults age 20 and older – some 8.5 million people – reported taking a prescription sleep aid within the month. “They’re a reasonable solution in the short term,” says Dr. Howell. “But the only chance to cure insomnia is with behavioral therapy.” Howell adds that if a person is on sleep medications for six months and stops taking them, insomnia will quickly return because the overall sleep behavior hasn’t changed.
5. Know when to see a specialist. As Reena Mehra, MD, of the Cleveland Clinic’s Sleep Disorders Center points out, “there are different flavors of insomnia.” Some chronic sleep problems require medical intervention, especially if there is an underlying medical reason. If you snore at night and feel drowsy during the day, then you may be one of 18 million Americans who have obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). OSA occurs when muscles in the back of the throat relax, which disrupts breathing. People with OSA are often unaware of the issue and think they’re sleeping straight through, so the person sharing their bed can play an important role in spotting the condition.
The bottom line: “Lack of sleep harms human health,” Watson says. “It’s associated with bad health outcomes, and affects our relationships with others. People need to view sleep as a performance-enhancing activity.”