As a teen I developed a fondness for reading. It provided respite from the more disquieting aspects of my life, and, like a fine friend, was always available. Like most kids, I saw going to bed at a decent hour to be just one of the scores of ridiculous rules parents enforced. So if a book had captured my interest, I would shove a rolled up towel under the door so my clueless parents would think I was fast asleep.
Forty years later, with no pesky parent around (except maybe for that hectoring voice in my head), I can stay up as late as I damn well please. I usually drift off at a decent hour, and even the periodic outrageous fortune doesn’t disturb my slumber.
Recently, though, for the first time in my life I had a bout with insomnia. Bedtime became fraught with anxiety as I anticipated sharing another night with the glow of the nightstand clock. Mornings were fueled by too much caffeine and in the afternoon I yearned for a nap – both behaviors that aggravated my inability to sleep.
See, our marvelous bodies produce the sleep hormone melatonin when it gets dark, which, like a silent parent, tells us to go to sleep. Of course we started screwing this up a hundred years ago when most residential homes began to run on electricity. But it seems that this fooling with Mother Nature has reached its zenith with tablets. The brain, it appears, is particularly susceptible to their insistent blue glow just inches from our faces in ways that even televisions and bedside lamps can’t match. (Amazon claims that its Kindle is more sleep friendly.)
You know how much sleep you should be getting. I’m not even going to tell you. What is scary, though, is how bad not sleeping really is for you. A recent New York Times blog cites some frightening facts that might, well, keep you awake at night:
- When you don’t sleep enough, the heart, lungs and kidneys, appetite, metabolism and weight control, immune function and disease resistance, sensitivity to pain, and brain function suffer. “Sleep affects almost every tissue in our bodies,” said Dr. Michael J. Twery, a sleep specialist at the National Institutes of Health.
- Poor sleep is also a risk factor for depression and substance abuse, especially among people with post-traumatic stress disorder. People with PTSD tend to relive their trauma when they try to sleep, which keeps their brains in a heightened state of alertness.
- The older you get, the worse you sleep. The circadian signal just isn’t as strong.
- In one study, healthy young men prevented from sleeping more than four hours a night for six nights in a row ended up with insulin and blood sugar levels like those of people deemed prediabetic.
- The risks of cardiovascular diseases and stroke are higher in people who sleep less than six hours a night. Even a single night of inadequate sleep can cause daylong elevations in blood pressure in people with hypertension.
- The risk of cancer may also be elevated in people who fail to get enough sleep, possibly from diminished secretion of the sleep hormone melatonin.
- In a study of 153 healthy men and women, Sheldon Cohen and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University found that those who slept less than seven hours a night were three times as likely to develop cold symptoms.
- Some of the most insidious effects of too little sleep involve mental processes like learning, memory, judgment and problem-solving. The cognitive decline that so often accompanies aging may in part result from chronically poor sleep.
- In driving tests, sleep-deprived people perform as if drunk, and no amount of caffeine or cold air can negate the ill effects.
At your next health checkup, tell your doctor how long and how well you sleep. Be honest: Sleep duration and quality can be as important to your health as your blood pressure and cholesterol level. Patients often bring sleep issues to a therapist, and that’s a good idea, too. The Mayo Clinic, among others, has found that behavioral changes work as well or better than medication in treating insomnia.
For a list of things you can to that will help you sleep better tonight, click here.