The Well being Toll of Poor Sleep

In the Nurses’ Health Study, which followed 71,617 women for a decade, those who slept eight hours a night had the lowest risk of developing heart disease. But in another study that followed 84,794 nurses for up to 24 years, those who slept nine or more hours a night were twice as likely to develop Parkinson’s disease as those who slept an average of six hours or less slept.

Yet many more people, both laypeople and professionals, are more concerned about sleeping too little than about sleeping too much, and for good reason. Sleep-deprived people have more accidents and are more likely to fall asleep at inappropriate times, such as at a play or concert or, in the worst case, while driving.

Sleepy driving slows reaction times, as does drunk driving. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, fatigue leads to 100,000 car accidents and 1,550 car deaths annually in the United States. Several automakers, including Subaru, Audi, Mercedes, and Volvo, are now offering drowsiness detection systems that monitor a car’s movements, such as lane departure, and alert drowsy drivers to take a break.

Sleep deprivation has been a factor in some of the biggest environmental disasters in decades, including the 1979 nuclear disaster on Three Mile Island, the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown, and the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.

While you might expect the opposite, several studies have shown that short sleepers tend to weigh more than those who sleep longer, despite the fact that people burn more calories when they are awake than when they sleep. A study of 990 working adults in rural Iowa found that the less they slept during the week, the higher their body mass index tended to be.

A Canadian study of 240 children aged 8 to 17 showed that it was not helpful to make up for the short nights during the week by sleeping longer on the weekend. Fluctuating hours of sleep can affect appetite regulating hormones in such a way that people eat when they are not hungry and eat past the point of satiety. The Wisconsin Sleep Cohort Study found that short sleepers had low levels of the appetite suppressing hormone leptin and higher levels of the hormone ghrelin, which signals people to eat more.

In addition, an attempt to make up for lost sleep on the weekend has been linked to eating without hunger or in response to fatigue, and excessive temptation from the sight or smell of food. I can confirm a general tendency to eat more – especially snacks with questionable nutritional value – when staying up past a reasonable bedtime.

Experts provide a variety of tips for better sleep. Including:

  • Avoid all sources of caffeine in the late afternoon and evening, as well as a large, heavy meal just before bed.

  • Practice good sleep hygiene. Go to bed and get up at about the same time each day.

  • Do not use alcohol to relax. Try a warm bath or meditation.

  • Reading before bed is great as long as it’s not on a computer or tablet that emits sleep-inhibiting light.

  • If outside light is hindering sleep, install light-blocking blinds or curtains, or use a sleep mask. If noise is an issue, use earplugs or a device that has white noise.

  • Consider cognitive behavior therapy that challenges underlying thoughts or behaviors that may keep you awake at night.

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