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The stats are in: We’re not sleeping enough!

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When it comes to being healthy, there is a lot of talk about diet and exercise, but not as much about sleep. What is really the third pillar of our health is often taken for granted, but the truth is our sleep contributes directly and indirectly to all our other functioning including work or study performance, as well as diet and exercise itself.

Lack of sleep on your health

Lack of sleep goes further than just merely trying to get work done while feeling sleepy. Lack of sleep can endanger your health, as dietary habits and stress levels take a turn for the worse as a result of not enough rest. The Malaysian Society of Hypertension lists lack of sleep along with other unhealthy lifestyle habits such as work stress and consumption of large food portions and alcohol as contributors to heart disease such as high blood pressure. Furthermore, sleep deprivation causes the immune system to be suppressed, to the point that we develop less antibodies to certain vaccines, as shared by pulmonologist John Park, MD, who specializes in sleep medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester Minnesota, USA.

Lack of sleep on your diet

Lack of healthy sleep affects our daily health habits in various ways. Have you ever wondered why you binge on junk food when you’re sleepy? It’s more than just feeding yourself to keep awake, as researchers at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City have found deeper evidence as to why lack of sleep causes people to be drawn to unhealthy food. The research team’s study – which was presented at Sleep 2012, the 26th annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies (APSS) in the USA – explained that the cravings had to do with the brain's 'reward centre' that becomes highly active when you don’t get enough sleep, leading you to 'crave rewards' in the form of junk food. The study was conducted on 25 men and women of normal weight who had to sleep for either four hours or up to nine hours a night, for five nights, before undergoing brain scans while viewing photos of unhealthy and healthy food. A researcher for the study explained that sleep-deprived people found unhealthy foods “highly salient and rewarding”, leading them to consume more of those foods. These cravings in combination with lack of rest can set off a vicious cycle in terms of weight fluctuations.

Lack of sleep on your work and/or studies

And the same vicious cycle can be said for daily functioning such as work or study. Too many people spend their nights burning the midnight oil, trying to be as productive as possible in a day – only to miss out on sleep, the one thing that might actually help them with productivity! This is then followed by impaired focus the next day, causing people to not reach full productivity during regular hours, leading them to stretch working till late hours, and once again not getting enough sleep. Namni Goel, Ph.D., a biological psychologist and sleep expert at the University of Pennsylvania, USA, explains that too little sleep disrupts the neural pathways that allow information to travel smoothly from one area of your brain to another. Goel describes your thoughts “like a train diverted onto the wrong set of tracks and taking the slow route to town”. This results in your working memory, which handles decision-making and problem solving, struggling to perform normally when you’re tired. Hence, even normal everyday activities that you are accustomed with, such as choosing what to wear or usual work tasks, take longer for you to complete. 

Lack of sleep on your driving safety

Lack of sleep can also endanger your life as well as the lives of others, as the phenomenon of ‘sleepy driving’, while not as popular as drunk driving, poses the exact same risks.  A 2005 Sleep in America poll by the American National Sleep Foundation reported that as many as 32 million people said they fell asleep at the wheel. And before you might consider that this isn’t a local problem, the Sleep Disorder Society Malaysia (SDSM) has reported some 30% in a test group of 300 Malaysian bus drivers suffered from sleep disorders, with 8% having chronic symptoms. The SDSM went on to comment that sleep problems might be a contributing factor in the increasing number of public transport accidents in Malaysia.

Lack of sleep on your relationship(s)

Furthermore, lack of sleep also leads to social woes such by damaging our relationships with people around us, such as colleagues or loved ones. In a series of new studies by the University of California USA, psychologists found that lack of sleep can actually reduce feelings of gratitude, making people feel less grateful for their partners, no matter how wonderful their partners might be! Amie Gordon, a lead researcher in these studies who herself was a PhD candidate in social-personality psychology, explained that basic biological needs like sleep and hunger play roles that we don’t realize in the quality of our relationships. While it may be normal for couples to disagree on occasion, a lack of sleep could potentially accentuate disagreements and infuse unnecessary stress into otherwise happy relationships.

Lack of sleep on your wallet

And finally, diseases on the rise in relation to lack of sleep are causing a spike in medical costs. The total annual health care cost of sleep disorders in Australia was estimated to be $818 million , according to a 2010 report entitled the economic cost of sleep disorders in Australia by Sleep Health Foundation & Deloitte Access Economics.

Lack of sleep: What to do

And perhaps the biggest shame in the matter, is that health and social endangerments caused by lack of sleep along with the rising medical costs are very potentially avoidable.

First and foremost, making a conscious effort to improve daytime habits is essential. By bettering the other two pillars of health namely diet and exercise, your third pillar – sleep – can see significant improvements. The Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School says that by exercising, the body is able to expel stress by excreting the stress hormone known as cortisol, allowing one to fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly. It is recommended to exercise at least three hours before bed to allow our body to cool down sufficiently.

And as for diet, coffee is not the only thing to avoid before bedtime. The University of Maryland Medical Center says other pre-bedtime food and drink to avoid include alcohol and other caffeinated beverages and foods such as coffee, tea, sodas, chocolate, as well as heavy, spicy, or sugary foods that may be difficult to digest. It is also important to balance fluid intake: drink enough fluid at night to keep from waking up thirsty, but not too much that you’ll need to wake up to tinkle. If there is something you might like to drink before bedtime, try going for milk. A protein found in milk known as Lactium is well-known for its anti-stress properties.

Besides food, also review other things your body is consuming, such as medications, supplements or even nicotine if you smoke.

Finally, make simple steps towards improving your sleep hygiene. Have a warm bath before bed, ensure a cool temperature in your bedroom, and try your best to minimise light and sound in your sleeping environment. You can also keep a lookout for solutions that are unique to you; some people may find certain fragrances calming and could try a room spray in that scent, while others may find certain music or sounds soothing, such as audio recordings of the ocean or even ‘sleep music’ that you could purchase online. And needless to say, try your best to avoid excessive daytime napping that may interfere with your sleep schedule.

Results may not come literally ‘overnight’, but achieving healthy sleep means a regulated sleep-wake cycle whereby your sleep schedule provides you with ample daily rest to cope with your lifestyle and daytime schedule.

This article was brought to you by Rilax Zzz .

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