Sleep is not a luxury; it is a basic health need long known to affect a person’s ability to think and function. Increasingly scientists and researchers are learning more about other values of sleep that may impact health and help improve and extend lives.
“The effects of sleep on the human body are both complex and amazing, affecting not just appearance and alertness, but many aspects of physical and mental health,” said TDH Commissioner John Dreyzehner, MD, MPH. “We now understand the amount and quality of sleep can be factors in getting or avoiding cancer and heart disease, cause weight gain leading to obesity, and contribute to joint inflammation and other physical problems. Lack of proper sleep can also cause depression, memory loss and weaken creativity, as well as generating performance issues affecting safety.”
Sleep needs vary from one person to another; current recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are:
Age Recommended Amount of Sleep
Newborns 16–18 hours a day
Pre-school-aged children 11–12 hours a day
School-aged children At least 10 hours a day
Teens 9–10 hours a day
Adults (including the elderly) 7–8 hours a day
Here are some more facts about sleep:
- Sleep allows your body to perform routine repair and maintenance and allows organs, such as your heart, to recover from hard work. The heart beats about 100,000 times per day, pumping 1,800 gallons of blood. It needs periodic rest to rebuild and restore muscle tissue.
- A lack of sleep can affect many chemical processes in the body. Your pancreas may not produce enough insulin, leading to diabetes issues; growth hormone levels may be affected, accelerating the fat-gaining process and leading to obesity; neurotransmitters in the brain may be depleted, leading to depression and irritability; melatonin production and hormone levels may be altered, possibly leading to some types of cancer; and cortisol levels may be impacted, leading to hardening of the arteries.
- The myth that older people don’t need as much sleep is just that: a myth. Unfortunately, many older people believe it and don’t get help to address issues affecting their sleep. Talking with a healthcare provider may identify an underlying matter, such as a prescribed medication issue, that causes sleeplessness.
- Not getting enough sleep can affect your immune system, causing you to be more susceptible to illnesses and infections.
- Brains and computers have much in common. You can think of sleep’s effects on memory as the brain’s time to process and store information to an internal hard drive. This is why sleepless nights of studying are often counterproductive – the information goes in to short-term memory but never makes it to the long-term memory, or “hard drive.” A lack of sleep can also impact alertness and creativity. Think of sleep as a way to defragment your brain’s hard drive, allowing it to work much more efficiently.
- Humans can go longer without food than without sleep.
It’s estimated 70 million Americans, more than one-fourth of people, suffer from some type of sleep disorder. Here are some tips for getting the right amount and quality of sleep:
- Alcohol consumption may help you get to sleep, but as it wears off restlessness can occur, along with lighter sleep, which lacks the restorative powers of deep sleep.
- Sounds not loud enough to waken you can still disrupt your sleep. Try to sleep in a quiet place or consider using ear plugs. This is a challenge for parents of newborns, who are estimated to lose 450 to 700 hours of sleep in the baby’s first year!
- Eliminate as much light as possible when you sleep; even the light from a clock radio can interrupt neurotransmitters in your brain, affecting the quality of your sleep.
- Lowering the room temperature will help your body adjust to a more comfortable level for sleeping.
- Researchers say the allure of 24-hour internet, television, smart phones and other devices is causing people to stay awake longer, changing their sleep patterns. Set personal limits on using these and have a firm time to unplug earlier before going to sleep.
“If you are experiencing regular problems with going to sleep or staying asleep, discuss these with your healthcare provider,” Dreyzehner said. “We now know sleep is just as important to good health as diet and exercise, and your clinician may recommend some simple changes to your lifestyle that can affect both the quality and duration of your sleep. In most cases ‘sleeping pills’ aren’t the answer; making small modifications to sleeping position, keeping TVs or other electronic screens out of the bedroom or addressing other challenges, such as sleep apnea, may be all it takes for you to get the sleep you need.”