Get Your ZZZ’s – How Sleep Plays A Key Role in Our Health

Think Fast – What do you need to do everyday in order to live a healthy life?

Exercise. Eat wholesome, nutritious foods. Drink plenty of water. Limit intake of alcohol, sweets and fats. Sleep. Stretch. Meditate. Socialize. Back up….Did you catch that….Sleep? That’s right. There are many studies that indicate that insufficient sleep increases the risk of developing serious medical conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity.

Far too many people, athletes included, push themselves as hard as they can by training with the intent to get better/stronger/faster. However, they do not place the same amount of importance on their rest or sleep for adequate recovery.

In our overly busy world, it’s not surprising that when we are pressed for time one of the first things we cut back on is sleep. But, a lack of sleep can have both short-term and long-term effects on our bodies. For that reason, it is important to understand how we sleep, what interrupts our Zzzz’s, and how to effectively get a good night’s rest.

right side sleeperSleep Cycles

When sleeping, we generally pass through five phases of sleep: stages 1-3, known as NREM (non-rapid eye movement, and REM (rapid eye movement).  As we sleep, the body cycles between non-REM and REM. It is during the non-REM that the body repairs and regenerates tissues, builds bone and muscle, and strengthens the immune system. During the non-REM stages, we experience different depths of sleep. Stage 1 is a relatively light stage of sleep, and lasts only 5-10 minutes. Stage 2 lasts about 20 minutes, and body temperature starts to fall, and heart rate slows. Stage 3 is a deep sleep with slow brain waves known as delta waves. This usually lasts 20 to 40 minutes.  Stage 4 is REM sleep where we dream. During REM, the brain and other body systems become more active, while muscles become more relaxed.

Sleep does not necessarily progress through this cycle in sequence. We begin sleep in stage 1, and progress to stages 2 and 3, but after stage 3, stage 2 is repeated before entering REM sleep. Generally, we cycle through these stages and REM sleep 4 or 5 times in a night.

Sleepus Interruptus

Insomnia is the inability to fall asleep or remain asleep. Many people I know are currently experiencing or have experienced insomnia at some point, and a few deal with it chronically. The key to overcoming insomnia is to identify what is keeping you from falling and staying asleep, and finding a solution that works for you so you can overcome it and get a good night’s sleep. Generally, insomnia is a symptom of other conditions. In many cases, it’s a result of mental or emotional stress, depression, or relationship issues. There can also be physical reasons for it such as elevated cortisol levels, digestive issues, menopause, pain, illness and more.

Even our diet plays a huge role in our sleep habits- by eating unhealthy foods, they do not provide the amino acids, vitamins and minerals that create the neurotransmitters that allow us to sleep.

Negative Health Consequences 

While many medical conditions develop slowly and have multiple risk factors, reducing sleep by even two to three hours a night can contribute to some of society’s biggest health problems, including:

  • Diabetes. Insufficient sleep (less than 5 hrs/night) increases the risk for developing type 2 diabetes
  • Cardiovascular disease. Missing 2-3 hours of sleep a night can increase the risk of coronary artery calcification, a risk factor for heart attacks.
  • Immune function. Sleep deprivation increases the number of molecules in our body that can reduce our ability to fight infection and harmful agents.
  • Common cold. One study found that people who slept less than 7 hours a night were three times more likely to develop a cold.
  • Obesity. A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that on average, overweight people slept less each day than normal weight people. Another study found people who slept 5 or less hours a night were 33% more likely to gain 30 pounds or more, compared to those who slept 7 hours per night.

Additionally, insufficient sleep may change how our bodies regulate appetite; while increased fatigue is likely to reduce the amount of exercise we do, decrease our stamina, reduce our ability to focus, impair our reactivity, and negatively affect our mood.

So, how can we help ourselves?

Tips to Ensure You Get a Restful Night’s Sleep

alarm clock bed

  • Have a sleep schedule. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day. A consistent sleep-wakecycle promotes better sleep.
  • Create a bedtime routine. Do the same things every night as a message to your body that it’s time to wind down. Read a book, listen to calming music, take a warm bath or shower, engage in yoga or meditate.
  • Avoid electronics before bed. As research indicates, the blue light from watching TV or working on your computer before trying to sleep, may interfere with your natural sleep rhythm.
  • Drink chamomile tea. Chamomile tea is an herbal tea, which does not contain caffeine. Plus, the chamomile herb has been shown to
  • Don’t watch the clock. Turn it away from you or cover it up at night.
  • Exercise regularly, but give yourself 3-4 hours after a workout before going to bed.
  • Watch what you eat and drink. Don’t go to bed hungry or stuffed, and avoid sugar, nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol for at least 6 hours before bedtime. While alcohol may make you feel drowsy at first and help you fall asleep quicker, it disrupts your sleep patterns by reducing your REM sleep.
  • Create a comfortable sleep environment. Generally, a cool, dark room that is quiet will help your body relax. And, get a mattress and pillow that properly supports your body, while providing comfort.
  • Read, draw, listen to soft music, or meditate. You may also want to move to a different room so that you don’t begin to associate your bedroom with anxiety as you worry about how long it will take to fall asleep.
  • Most of all, find a way to relax your brain and your body. Stress is the #1 reason people have sleep difficulties, finding a way to relax will not only help you sleep, it will increase your happiness in life.

As you can see, quality sleep is such an integral part of a successful health program; so don’t give up your zzz’s in an effort to put in more time at the gym or at work, for example. If you want to stay healthy in the long run, you have to make sure you give your body time to rest and re-energize.