Have you ever stayed up all night studying for a test?  Have you ever wondered why our bodies convince us to close our eyes and drift away for 8 hours every night? Why do we sleep?  What would happen if we just decided to stop sleeping?  How long would we be able to last?

The world record for living without sleep is 11 days. Lab rats actually die from sleep deprivation faster than starving to death! Like breathing, eating, and moving, sleep is an instinctual, critical component of our lives that can be carried out in an unhealthy or healthy manner.  We’re going to talk about the effects of both.

Most, if not all, of us can feel the effects of not getting enough sleep.  It hits us hard the next morning like an overindulgent meal—we feel foggy and drained, our memory doesn’t work so well, and we can struggle to carry out even the simplest of tasks.

A recently published study reported that if you regularly sleep less than 7 hours each night, your immune system would suffer for it, making you three times more likely to get sick.  People with little sleep also tend to be more overweight and have shorter lifespans.  Research has actually shown that sleeping less alters the metabolic pathways that regulate appetite, making you feel hungrier as a result.  Quality sleep on a regular basis is necessary for a robust immune system.

REM, the “deep sleep” phase of the sleep cycle is where the most intense neural activity occurs. During REM sleep, blood circulation increases, oxygen levels rise, and brain tissue absorbs more amino acids. Scientists even go so far as to say that “good sleepers” are mentally sharper and are also at lower risk of neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Even though our bodies might appear very still when we sleep, it’s actually quite active, metabolically. Free radicals—substances that have been shown to be involved in many disease processes—are gobbled up at an increased rate during sleep. Reparative processes are also active; such as protein production fixing the damage our bodies sustained during the day, like sun damage.

So how much sleep do we need? Studies show that optimal health is achieved when newborns sleep 16-18 hours, young children sleep 10-12 hours, older children and teens sleep 9 hours, and adults sleep 7-8 hours. This doesn’t mean that our need for sleep decreases continually with age.  In fact, senior citizens need as much sleep as teenagers.

It has been shown that for those adults sleeping less than 7 hours, their risk of dying increases by 21% in women and 26% in men, a startling number that leads us to our advice for a better, healthier sleep lifestyle:

1) Turn off the lights. Light suppresses the body’s natural release of melatonin. A recent study found that exposure to light after dusk reduced melatonin levels by 71%

2) Avoid electronic devices. Television viewing, computers, and mobile phone use just before bedtime hinders our natural ability to fall asleep.

3) Stick to a schedule. We will find it easier to sleep, and it will be healthier, if we achieve a natural sleep/wake cycle. The sleep that we get before midnight is much more beneficial and can be worth almost twice as much as that after midnight.

4) Relax and get comfortable. Avoid activities that are too stimulating. Dimming the lights and reading may help. Develop a routine, like brushing and flossing your teeth and washing your face. This signals the brain that it is time to get ready to sleep. Drinking a glass of water at this time has been shown to reduce your risk of heart attack that night by 50%–make it part of your routine. Your bedroom should be a sanctuary of calmness and peace.

5) Say no to drugs. Sleep aids, such as sleeping pills, should be avoided. They increase your risk of many diseases as well as shorten your lifespan. Your body may look asleep, but the hormones and reparative processes are not being optimized, perhaps because the REM phase of sleep is not achieved ideally.

6) Watch what you eat. If your stomach is still churning away, you can imagine why it may be hard to go to sleep and to stay asleep. It is best to eat your lightest meal in the evening and then nothing after that. Eating ice cream at bedtime should not be part of your routine.

7) Get active. Daily exercise and physical activity is not only healthy, but it helps promote better sleep. But be careful about exercising too late at night, as this will boost your energy and may make it more difficult to go to sleep.

8) Be thankful. Closing the day by contemplating the day’s blessings and spending time in prayer is another way to get peaceful sleep. Forgive those who you need to and make amends with the people you have wronged. This way, you can go to bed without these issues crowding your thoughts.

It might have been some time since you’ve felt great in the morning, but waking up with a clear mind and zest to start the day is entirely possible, and entirely worth turning off the light an hour earlier than usual.  Try it for a week, then try it for the rest of your life.  You’ll feel better, think clearer, look better, and even live longer.


About the Author

Randy Bivens, MD

Dr. Randy Bivens graduated from Loma Linda School of Medicine, completing first an internal medicine internship, then a diagnostic radiology residency. In addition to serving as president of Life and Health Network, Dr. Bivens is also president of Bivens Medical Corporation, an imaging consulting service.

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