In this sleep series we have discussed habits, your sleeping environment and now in part 3, we will take a deep look at the physiology of sleep and medical conditions that are related to sleep patterns.
A friend once told me that in their opinion, sleep was a waste of time and there would be plenty of time for that when they were dead. This friend suffers from serious FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and this perspective is literally putting that friend at health risk. After reading this article you will understand why your life might depend on the sleep you get.
The Effects of Sleep On Our Health and Hormones
The truth is, that without sleep your body has no opportunity to heal, repair and re-set. There are serious consequences to our health when we get incomplete, poor quality or have disrupted sleep. Consequences from chronic sleep deprivation puts us at risk for all of the following: Type 2 Diabetes, heart disease, heart attack, heart failure, high blood pressure, stroke, hormone disruptions and weight gain.
It also increases risk for injury and accidents, (because you are perpetually tired), depresses your immune system, fuels depression and anxiety, decreases fertility, decreases in sex drive and it shortens your life expectancy.
Sleep allows us to re-charge and rest from the activity in our day. During our active day you can think of the body as “breaking down”. At night during sleep is when we “repair and rebuild” structures like bones and muscles. During sleep we release about 75% of human growth hormone which helps regulate body composition including sugar (glucose) and fat metabolism, as well as body fluids. The hormones Leptin (our satiety hormone) and Ghrelin (our hunger hormone) are thrown out of balance when we don’t get enough sleep, driving us to eat more and contributing to getting fatter. If our blood sugar get’s too low during sleep, we will release stress hormones which wake us up and make it difficult to get back to proper sleep cycles.
Sleep allows us to feel rested, it strengthens our immune system, and regulates appetite and our weight. Getting high quality sleep is the foundation of a healthy body.
It is really important, especially for women who tend to be more weight conscious, to understand that lack of good quality, adequate sleep can cause unwanted weight gain, even if you are eating well and exercise regularly. Women often will stay awake late into the night or early morning just to get some “quiet time”, then struggle to get to sleep and stay asleep.
I tell my clients all the time that they could be eating a perfect diet and exercising regularly, but if they aren’t getting restorative sleep, they most likely are going to gain weight.
The science and physiology of sleep are complex, but it is important to understand that our bodies have an internal circadian clock that helps regulate sleep and waking. During sleep we cycle through sleep stages that take us from light to deep to light sleep again in cycles that occur several times per night.
There are numerous sleep disorders related to abnormal sleep behaviors: circadian rhythm disorder, excessive daytime sleepiness and sleep related movement disorders that require medical attention. A common breathing related disorder is sleep apnea. It is a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts and in severe cases, if left untreated, can lead to death. If you are aware of snoring loudly or making gasping sounds, or you are observed to stop breathing during sleep it is imperative that you seek medical evaluation and assistance to treat and correct this condition.
How Much Sleep Do We Need ?
The amount of time we need to sleep has much to do with what stage of our development we are at. Babies need to sleep from 16 to 18 hours per day and during this time their brains and bodies are going through rapid growth. School aged children through teen years need about 9.5 hours of sleep nightly, they are still in growth mode. Adults up to about age 60 require 7 to 9 hours of sleep. After 60, sleep starts to change becoming shorter, lighter and more interrupted. Getting at least 7 hours of sleep is an ideal goal at this age range.
Sleep Aids and Medications
So what is a person to do when you can’t get to sleep? Prescription medications are often used to treat sleep problems. Benzodiazepines like Valium, Xanax, Klonopin, Ativan, are often prescribed for sleep. Unfortunately these types of medications can create a tolerance and higher doses are required until they no longer work. There is high risk for developing a dependence on them and withdrawal symptoms may occur when discontinued. They also have secondary effects after prolonged use which include cognitive and memory impairments as well as worsening depression and anxiety. There are other prescription medications also used for sleep but all the prescription medications have risks and if possible should be considered as a last resort if behavioral and lifestyle approaches fail.
Over-the-counter medications have their own problems and significant side-effects and should not be thought of as “harmless” solely because they are available without prescription. Benadryl is a common one and long-term use is being linked to dementia.
Melatonin is actually a hormone and is an option that can be used as a short-term intervention to help reset sleep cycles if coupled with behavioral and lifestyle changes, but is not recommended as a long-term solution for getting and staying asleep.
Sleep Wrap Up
In this series we have just touched the surface of the importance of sleep to our health and to our very lives. Habits, environment, health conditions, and medications are all aspects that need to be considered when sleep is elusive. Sleep is a pillar of good health.
Here are 9 top considerations in relation to sleep and health
Photo by Naomi August on Unsplash
I'm Carmina McGee, MS, RDN, and my mission is to support women to live their happiest, healthiest lives and THRIVE!