Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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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.