It is good and needful to eat well and exercise, but nothing can take the place of sleep. There is no herb, super food, stimulant, or magic drug that can do for us what a simple night’s sleep can do, yet tragically, many people are not getting enough of this vital component to health.
The Importance of Sleep
Before the light bulb, people slept an average of 10 hours a night, especially during the winter when nights are longer. Now, with the availability of artificial light, we sleep an average of about 7.5 hours per night, and some do not even get this much sleep. The problem is that too little sleep greatly impacts our health in many ways, and over time, it can lead to serious health issues, such as:
- Brain damage;
- Accelerated aging;
- High blood sugar levels and an increased risk of diabetes;
- Weight gain, especially around the abdomen;
- Increased risk of cancer by altering the balance of hormones in your body;
- Weakening of the immune system;
- High blood pressure;
- Increased risk of heart disease and stroke;
- Speed up tumor growth (tumors grow two to three times faster in laboratory animals with severe sleep dysfunctions);
Research has found that sleep deprivation alters levels of important hormones that are linked with appetite and eating behavior which leads to eating more sweet and starchy foods. These cravings put our body into a pre-diabetic state, and makes us feel hungry, even if we have already eaten. Research has also shown that a lack of sleep leads to an increase in abdominal fat, which is linked to heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic diseases. During sleep, the body does most of its repairs, so not getting enough sleep can impair the immune system and make us less able to fight off diseases of all kinds.
Most of us have experienced some lack of sleep at one time or another and realize that this affects our performance, but do we really know how much it can affect us? Studies done with athletes has found that by sleeping more, the benefits to athletes were equal to performance-enhancing drugs or years of additional training. This is BIG!!
In one study, the Cardinal’s men’s basketball team did a test where for two weeks, the players’ athletic performance was assessed after getting their normal amount of sleep, which averaged 6.5 hours per night. Then, for 5-7 weeks the players extended their sleep time as much as possible, which was around 8.5 hours per night. It was reported that, “The results were startling. By the end of the extra-sleep period, players had improved their free throw shooting by 11.4 percent and their three-point shooting by 13.7 percent. There was an improvement of 0.7 seconds on the 282-foot sprint drill—every single player on the team was quicker than before the study had started. A 13-percent performance enhancement is the sort of gain that one associates with drugs or years of training—not simply making sure to get tons of sleep. This research strongly suggests that most athletes would perform much better with more sleep…”
If athletes can improve their performance by sleeping more, the same will apply to us.
Many Americans are not getting enough sleep. According to the statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 50 and 70 million Americans suffer from sleep deprivation, and nearly 9 million Americans take prescription sleeping pills. This is not a good way to get sleep, as many emergency room visits are due to zolpidem, which is the active ingredient in the sleep aids: Ambien, Edluar, and Zolpimist.
Over-medication and polypharmacy (the use of multiple drugs), are also a problem. In fact, a 2013 CDC report estimated that up to one-third of all fatal car crashes involve a drowsy driver, and daytime drowsiness is a very common side effect of sleeping pills.
Clearly, quality sleep is a key ingredient for aging well, and maintaining healthy brain and body into old age. Our health, life, and well-being does depend on getting enough sleep. Next week, I will continue this series on sleep and talk about Why we may not be getting enough sleep and what to do to get a good night’s rest.
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Amy Willis, MH
About the Author
Amy Willis M.H.