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Saint Luke's News: Counting Sheep for Better Health: An Argument for a Good Night's Sleep

March 12, 2019
African American female sleeping with an eye-mask in bed

We know we need a good night's sleep. It’s not only good for our health and our cognitive function but our productivity and relationships. The good thing is awareness for the importance of sleep is increasing. Even so, according to the American Sleep Association, 35% of adults say they get less than seven hours of sleep in a 24-hour period.

“A lot of people may say that they aren’t getting enough sleep and even then, they’re getting even less sleep than they think,” says Dr. Jason Graff, sleep medicine specialist at Saint Luke's Midwest Pulmonary Consultants

Getting enough sleep is important for multiple reasons; your immune system, alertness, and energy level during the day, your ability to handle stress, being a safer driver, and overall positive effects on one's global health. 

But how do you know you are getting a healthy amount of sleep?

Dr. Graff says there is a great degree of variability between adults on how much sleep they need for good health.

“We do know that people who chronically get less than 6 hours of sleep have a lower life expectancy, and so do those that sleep more than 9 hours at night. It is possible to sleep too much,” says Dr. Graff. “Most people who are getting less than 6 hours of sleep are either burning the candle at both ends or have a health problem that causes them not to sleep well, and that may affect their mortality. People who are sleeping all day long may also have some health problems as well.”

The amount of sleep that you need to feel rested and alert throughout the day without a bunch of stimulants, like caffeine, is what your body needs. So, if you’re sleeping seven hours but you need a lot of caffeine during the day to stay alert then maybe your body really needs eight. 

Negative Impacts on Sleep

Our internal biological clock wants us to sleep when it’s dark and be awake when it’s light as if we were living like cavemen. We just have work duties, family duties, and artificial lighting that allow us to fight against our own biology and it’s when we do that frequently at irregular intervals where we can feel even more sleep deprived depending on the time of day and what we are doing. 

Lack of sleep has a very wide impact on one's overall health. Insomnia or insufficient sleep can worsen chronic conditions, like anxiety, depression, and fibromyalgia. Sleep is intertwined with how our body handles everything that ails us, and insufficient sleep can certainly make everything worse. 

Sleep deprivation increases daytime sleepiness, your risk for sleepiness related automobile accidents, the risk for poor school or workplace performance, and workplace accidents. There is also evidence that insufficient sleep or sleep disorders result in increased infections and suppresses the immune system.

“You have to be aware of a lot of the negative consequences of chronically being sleep deprived,” says Dr. Graff.  “It’s not just about your productivity during the day; you really have to look hard at the data that chronic sleep deprivation can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, reduces the quality of life, makes people more irritable, it can negatively affect your interpersonal relationships at home and at work.”

There are multiple things that can impact your sleep schedule, and having an irregular schedule can result in people getting less sleep than they need and being sleepy at times when they need to be awake.

“Commonly, things that we put in our bodies can have an effect on our sleep. Excessive caffeine, nicotine or alcohol can negatively impact sleep,” says Dr. Graff. “People need to be aware that caffeine can linger in your system for up to six hours for some people. So, avoiding caffeine before bedtime is important. Nicotine is a stimulant, so smoking or vaping right before bed can have a negative effect on your sleep. And, even though alcohol can cause you to go to sleep faster, it can fragment sleep, so you awaken more frequently.”

Other habits can also directly correlate with how well or how much you sleep at night. The blue light or ultraviolet light that is emitted by most LED screens, like your smartphone or TV, or even light bulbs simulate the suns effect on the brain. Sunlight typically wakes us up, when being in the dark typically gets us more prepared for sleep. Those sorts of lights can trick your brain into thinking that it’s daytime making it harder to go to sleep or even causing insomnia. Avoiding these bright lights an hour before bed can help you fall asleep faster which results in you getting the sleep you need. 

How Much Sleep Should You Be Getting?

Younger children need between 10-12 hours of sleep a night. 

Adolescences and teens need about nine to ten hours. However, the majority of teenagers are actually getting less sleep than they need due to extracurricular activates on top of homework. They are also on their phones which keeps them up and impacts their sleep. 

Adults should be getting between seven to nine hours of sleep a night. 

If you are sleeping seven hours Monday through Friday prior to work but on Saturday and Sunday, without an alarm, you are sleeping nine hours it suggests that your body is not getting enough rest during the work week.

Sleep Debt

Is it possible to “catch up” on sleep? Dr. Graff says, “kind of.” It is more so known as “Sleep Debt.”

Let’s walk through it. If someone needs eight hours of sleep nightly and during the week, they’re only getting seven hours Monday through Friday, that means going into the weekend they are already five hours behind on their sleep. So, on Saturday and Sunday, if they sleep in an hour, it helps a little bit, but it doesn’t completely make up for all the sleep they lost during the week. You then start Monday already behind on sleep, and the cycle continues. 

“It is often difficult to completely catch up on all the sleep lost during the week just on a couple of days on the weekend,” says Graff. “It is better to adjust your bedtime and habits to allow for adequate sleep during the week to be closer to what your body really needs.”

Best Habits for a Good Night’s Rest

Creating a bedtime routine is important because we can get drawn into our phones, TV shows, etc., so we are building our own environment that isn’t conducive to sleep. We need to think about have we prepared ourselves for sleep. This means setting boundaries like no electronics an hour before bedtime, as well as limiting or avoiding smoking and alcohol.

It’s important to keep a fairly regular sleep schedule. You should relax and prepare yourself mentally and physically for sleep an hour or two prior to bedtime. Do something that doesn't involve something too strenuous or stressful.

“You just have to make sleep a priority. Most of us know all the good sleep habits and can admit we don’t follow them all the time because we have multiple things pulling us in multiple directions,” says Dr. Graff. “We just need to create healthy habits for ourselves and our families."