SLEEP FOR HEALTH
I planned to title this article "healthy sleep" but a review of the literature convinced me to change the title
to emphasize the fact that quality sleep is absolutely necessary for mental and physical well-being and health. Some of my
clients tell me that sleep just gets in the way of their priorities and so they attempt to "get by" with a minimal
level of sleep. Other clients feel that sleep is a luxury they cannot afford. Other clients would like to sleep more but
are caught in a vicious cycle of insomnia and stress. My title is intended to emphasize the fact that sleep is a pre-requisite
for health not a goal in itself. Our minds and our bodies are built to work with adequate nutrition, exercise and sleep and
will begin to dysfunction without these vital ingredients. A simple analogy is to a battery which needs to be charged for
maximum efficiency. For awhile it seems like a battery can run without an adequate charge, but performance will slow down
and ultimately the battery will stop performing or even worse will self-destruct so that it never can be charged again. Through
evolution our bodies were designed to function with eight to nine hours of sleep per night (for adults) to balance our hormones
and allow essential processes such as digestion to occur. The body rejuvenates itself through sleep and performs functions
that can not be carried out adequately during wakeful states.
Research has shown a definite link between sleep deprivation and depression, anxiety and serious mental dysfunction.
Sleep deprivation is linked to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, memory problems and dementia. Even mild sleep deprivation
disrupts hormone levels which regulate appetite and blood sugar, increases blood levels of inflammatory substances that cause
disease, increases stress hormones, drives up blood pressure and decreases natural protectors in our immune system such as
our "natural killer cells" which fight infections. Many experts feel that the increase in chronic illnesses in
adults is directly related to sleep deprivation. As recently as the early 1900s adults slept according to the cycles of light,
darkness and seasonal variations for a total of 9 or 10 hours per night. Although modern medicine has developed pharmaceutical
and technological advances to combat acute illness, our chronic disease rates have increased related partially to the sleep
deficits which begin to cause a cascade of physical and mental dysfunctions.
Most people don't realize that their immediate quality of life, not just their long term health, can be positively or
negatively affected by the amount of sleep they had last night. Your energy, happiness and zest for life are all directly
related to the quantity and quality of your sleep. Deep sleep is restorative, helping people maintain optimal emotional and
social functioning while they are awake. Deep sleep is also "beauty sleep," needed for cell growth, damage repair
and to reduce signs of aging.
Assuming I may have convinced you or at least caught your attention, you ask how can you improve your sleep? First you
must prioritize time for sleep. If you know the time you must awaken, count back nine hours then count back an adequate amount
of time to put a sleep routine into place. You may have to find a different time and place for other activities. Sleep deprived
adults actually consume a lot of down time which can be reprogrammed into sleep time. Many adults use TV watching instead
of sleep for stress reduction and relaxation. If you think carefully about this you will realize that sleep is much more
effective in achieving these goals. In fact, some research indicates that TV watching increases feelings of depression and
stress and then increases insomnia when you finally go to bed.
Adults often understand the importance of bedtime routines for children but disregard their importance for themselves.
It is important to realize that sleep is a distinct physiological state and that transitional routines between wake and sleep
will facilitate efficient sleep. Many adults expect that they can "turn on sleep" as soon as they get into bed,
not realizing that a bedtime routine will enable them to enter directly into a sleep state. Our ancestors slept well when
dark descended and then woke with the light. Modern man turns up the electricity at night, turns on electronic gadgets such
as TV, hypes up metabolism with stimulants and carbohydrates, tries to get in some extra work before bed, then finds it surprising
that sleep does not occur naturally to an over-stimulated body and mind.
An understanding of the physiology of sleep will also help you structure the environment to maximize quality sleep and
minimize insomnia. The circadian rhythms of our body clock are programmed according to light and dark cycles. Quality sleep
is maximized when light exposure at night is minimized and when dark, cool and comforting environments are provided for restful
sleep. Bright light in the morning will also help to set the body clock in a consistent 24 hour rhythm.
I hope this brief background explanation about sleep psychology and physiology is helpful. I do want to provide more
detailed suggestions to maximize quality sleep, and you will find a continuation of this topic in the next article.