A few months ago I was catching up with an old friend that I hadn’t talked to in several years. As we caught each other up on what had happened in our lives, we stumbled upon the topic of chronic illness. Shockingly, we had both been newly diagnosed with an auto-immune disease. As we talked more about what our individual lives looked like with a chronic illness, my friend mentioned that he is so busy he just can’t seem to find the time to sleep more than 4-5 hours a night. There were too many important things he was doing that he just couldn’t afford to spend more time sleeping. The thought that immediately popped into the back of my mind, especially for someone who already has an auto-immune disease, was that he really couldn’t afford to NOT get a good nights sleep. Unfortunately, when we get busy in our lives and we don’t have enough time to fit everything in, the aspect of our health that seems easiest to sacrifice in order to create more time is sleep. Initially this might seem like a great plan to create more time in your day, but what you might not be aware of are the long term effects of too little sleep.
According to the CDC insufficient sleep has been linked to the development and management of a number of chronic diseases and conditions, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and depression. Lets dive a little deeper into what sleep’s effect is on each of these conditions.
Research has found that insufficient sleep is linked to an increased risk for the development of type 2 diabetes. Specifically, sleep duration and quality have emerged as predictors of blood sugar control. Recent research has also suggested that getting more sleep can help improve blood sugar control for those who already have type 2 diabetes.
People who have sleep apnea have been found to be at increased risk for a number of cardiovascular diseases. Notably, hypertension, stroke, coronary heart disease and cardiac arrhythmias have been found to be more common among those with disordered sleep.
Laboratory research has found that short sleep duration results in metabolic changes that may be linked to obesity. Studies have also revealed an association between short sleep duration and excess body weight. This association has been reported in all age groups—but has been particularly pronounced in children.
The relationship between sleep and depression is complex. While sleep disturbance is a symptom of depression, recent research has indicated that depressive symptoms may decrease once sleep apnea has been effectively treated and sufficient sleep restored.
If sleep is SO crucial to our health and helping to prevent the development of chronic illness, why do we so willingly sacrifice our sleep and what can we do to improve it? There are a lot of resources out there providing guidance for good sleep habits. This guidance is typically referred to as sleep hygiene. Below is an overall summary of several tips from several resources including Mayo Clinic, CDC, and Anxiety Canada to help improve your sleep.
Establish a sleep routine. Begin getting ready for bed at the same time each night and set a consistent routine that you follow. This will help trigger your body to know it’s time for bed. Allow for 7-8 hours of sleep and get up at the same time each morning no matter how well you slept. Avoid taking a nap during the day. This will help your body establish a regular rhythm.
Create a comfortable sleep environment. Make sure that you have a supportive mattress and fresh, comfortable bedding. Ensure that your room is not too hot or cold, minimize noise, and block out light. Avoid using technology(TV, phone, etc.) at least 30 minutes before bedtime.
- Interesting side note: A study was recently conducted and published in JAMA Internal Medicine, a reputable medical journal, that looked at the association of artificial light exposure at night while sleeping and weight gain in 43,722 women. They did find evidence that sleeping with exposure to artificial light may be a risk factor for weight gain and obesity. Some thoughts behind this is that it may impact the amount of melatonin your body produces and cause poor quality sleep leading to weight gain. More research is needed to further support the results, but in the meantime, turn off your TV, phone, or any other sources of artificial light while you sleep!
Only use your bed for sleeping (sex is the only exception). Try to avoid reading, watching TV, working, or studying in bed. This can keep your mind active and get in the way of sleep.
Try to relax before going to bed. If your mind is stressed and busy, try using meditation techniques or listening to calming music. Keep a notepad by your bed so you can write down your thoughts at any point during the night and address them in the morning.
If you’re hungry at bedtime, have a small healthy snack. Although a heavy meal late in the evening can disrupt sleep, a healthy light snack in the evening can improve sleep. Try eating light cheese and crackers, turkey, or bananas, or drink a warm glass of milk. Avoid heavy, spicy, or sugary foods.
Exercising during the day can help improve your sleep. So, get moving! Go for a walk or a run. Exercising later in the day can help you sleep better but don’t exercise within 2-4 hours of when you’re planning to go to bed.
Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and smoking at least 4 hours before bedtime. They can all interfere with a good night sleep. If you have trouble sleeping in general, try avoiding caffeine completely.
Get some natural light. Try to spend some time outdoors or in natural light every day. Getting some sunlight early in the day can be helpful for setting your body’s natural wake and sleep cycle.
Sleep only when you are sleepy. Don’t force yourself into bed at a particularly time if you’re not feeling sleepy. You’ll only lie awake in bed, frustrated that you can’t sleep.
- Sometimes you might need to try some over-the-counter sleep aids to help you change your sleeping habits or get on a better sleeping schedule.
- Melatonin is usually a good option for helping you to feel sleepy and fall asleep. It generally doesn’t keep you asleep though. Try up to 5mg of melatonin to see if this can help you fall asleep. (Remember to get a USP certified product)
- Another over-the-counter sleep aid you can try is Benadryl (diphenhydramine). Start with 25mg and increase to 50mg if that doesn’t do the trick. Benadryl will help you fall asleep and stay asleep. Keep in mind though that this is not a long term solution. Your body will typically adjust to it’s effects after about 2 weeks so try to use this to help you develop a sleep schedule and incorporate these other sleep hygiene strategies in the meantime.
If you can’t fall asleep after 20 to 30 minutes, get out of bed and do something boring (e.g. read the manual on how to program your clock radio, read the sports section of the newspaper (if you’re not a sports fan) or try relaxing (e.g. meditate, listen to calm music, have a warm de-caffeinated drink). When you start to feel sleepy, try going back to bed. This strategy can feel like you are making things worse, but if you stick with it, it can really help.
TIP: Try not to worry about the fact that you’re laying there not sleeping. Let go of your belief that you have to get 8 hours of sleep or you can’t function. Stop looking at the clock and stop trying to make yourself fall sleep. It will happen when it happens.
keys to success
- Start Small. Don’t try to do everything all at once. Pick 1 or 2 strategies and try them consistently before you add something else. The goal is to slowly start increasing behaviors that can help you sleep, while reducing the things that are interfering with your sleep.
- Be consistent. Once you pick a strategy, be consistent with it and do the same thing every night.
- Be patient. These strategies can take time to improve your sleep. It might even feel like your sleep gets a little worse before it gets better. Hang in there and stick with it.
- Chart your progress. Keep track of the strategies you are using and how they are effecting you so over time you can see what’s working for you and what’s not.
Sleep is incredibly important to maintaining good health as well as managing weight and preventing chronic illness. When there isn’t enough time in the day, don’t sacrifice sleep to get more done! You might not see the immediate effects of losing sleep, but they will catch up to you over time.