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National Geographic recently dedicated an entire issue to the topic of sleep. The science of sleep is a rapidly evolving area of study that warrants our attention, especially now as we are collectively experiencing forced changes in our routines, livelihoods, and recreational pursuits. Researchers and sleep experts contend that adequate, restorative sleep is the best recovery tool we have. It’s the universal health care provider for virtually all body systems, and it keeps them in balance and running optimally.
Consequences of Sleep Deprivation:
Two-thirds of adults in developed nations get less than the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep per night. 40% of adults get fewer than 6 hours per night, and 75% report one sleep problem at least a few nights per week. School-age children and teens need 8-10 hours of sleep, but often get less.
For the past 20+ years, we as a society have been deliberately depriving ourselves of sleep in order to keep up with our fast-paced world and its demands. We prioritize our waking, working hours, and are less concerned about the hours we dedicate to our sleep. Whether this has been done intentionally or is a result of sleep issues such as insomnia, lack of sleep has resulted in consequences that are now being verified through scientific research. One big problem that occurs with chronic sleep deprivation is acclimatization to impaired performance. Ironically, this is the opposite of the increased productivity we sought in sleeping less. Low-level exhaustion and “brain fog” have become the accepted norm.
Our Bodies Suffer When Sleep Hours Are Cut Short:
Inadequate sleep contributes to anxiety, chronic pain, obesity, and diabetes. Sleep deprived individuals often have high blood pressure, heart arrhythmias, and other cardiovascular issues that can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Lack of sleep compromises our immune systems, leaving us more susceptible and less responsive to illness. It even reduces our antibody response to flu shots and hepatitis vaccines.
Chronic sleep deprivation creates symptoms similar to dementia, including confusion and depression. Memory, mental processing, and emotional stability all suffer. Drowsiness, reduced alertness, and slower reaction times have all been clinically shown in those who sleep too little, mimicking the same issues seen with drunk driving. Not surprisingly, chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to a higher rate of motor vehicle accidents.
Athletes also suffer when they don’t get adequate sleep. Endurance and anaerobic power decrease, and the risk of injury increases, especially in adolescents. Recent studies show that high-level athletes benefit significantly from extra hours of sleep. Usain Bolt, the world record holding sprinter, and Lebron James of basketball fame both sleep 10-12 hours per night and take power naps during the day. A 2011 Stanford study of collegiate athletes saw a significant improvement in performance when they slept 9-10 hours per night when compared to 7-8 hours per night.
What About Insomnia and Other Sleep Disorders?
Many people would gladly sleep longer, but have trouble either getting to sleep and/or sleeping soundly. If we are unable to get into the deep, restorative sleep stage where most benefits take place, our bodies will let us know. Over-the-counter and prescribed sleep aids can be helpful in the short-term, but they do not provide natural (deep) sleep and can be addictive.
Alternative Options to Sleep Aids:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has shown to be effective in overcoming sleep issues, and works best if used as a first line treatment option. Below are the main tenets, along with some other great tips for a good night’s sleep:
- Have a consistent sleep/wake schedule, even on weekends.
- Establish a “power-down” hour: prepare for the morning ahead, take a hot shower or bath, stretch or foam roll, or practice diaphragmatic breathing prior to going to bed.
- Avoid blue light emitting mobile devices that are held close to the face at least one hour before bedtime. TV seems to be less of a problem because it is further away, but reading would be a better alternative.
- Sleep in a dark, cool room. Ideal room temperature is between 60-67 degrees F.
- Avoid caffeine at least six hours before bedtime and alcohol and nicotine at least three hours before bedtime. They all disrupt the restorative stages of sleep.
- Avoid large meals close to bedtime. Digestion raises our core body temperature, and it takes time to come back down. Spicy and high-fat foods are harder to digest, so these foods may want to be avoided before bedtime.
- Tryptophan-rich foods, such as tart cherry juice, kiwi, pumpkin seeds, milk, and turkey, help us sleep more soundly.
- Exercise helps us become physically tired, but work out at least three hours before bedtime, as exercise also raises the body temperature.
- Avoid drinking fluids too close to bedtime to lessen the need to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.
- Don’t study or work in bed. Train your brain to associate your bed and bedroom with sleep.
- If you cannot get to sleep, get up and change your environment; try to spend the night in a different bedroom, a lounge chair, or couch.
It’s okay to nap!
A 15-20 minute powernap restores hormonal imbalances and improves alertness, performance, concentration, and judgment! However, longer naptimes are counter-productive because you move into a deeper phase of sleep, which will be disruptive to your regular nighttime rest. If you really need a big boost, drink a caffeinated beverage right before you nap. By the time you wake up, it will feel like you just had a double espresso shot!
Peak Performance: Elevate your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success. Brad Stulberg and Steve Magnuss. Published 06.06.2017.
Why Sleep Is So Important for Pain and Health. Modern Manual Therapy – The Eclectic Approach. Webinar Presented by Andrew Rothchild, PT, DPT with Ergon Religioso III, DPT, FAAOMPT. 09.09.2020. https://webinars.theeclecticapproach.com
Why We Sleep. Matthew Walker, PHD. Published 09.28.2017. Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology and the Center for Human Sleep Science at UC Berkeley. sleepdiplomat.com.
About the Author:
Carolyn grew up in the Bay Area and has lived on the peninsula all of her adult life. Living and promoting a healthy lifestyle are values she holds personally and professionally. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology at UCLA, and a Masters of Physical Therapy from the University of the Pacific. She brings 30 years of clinical experience treating children, teens and adults with a one-on-one, hands-on approach to patient care. She enjoys working to restore each patient to an optimal level of function and performance, whether it is after an acute injury, a need for post-operative rehabilitation, or to regain an active lifestyle. Carolyn and her husband are parents of four grown sons. Her interests outside of work include spending time working out at the Bay Club, snow and water skiing, gardening, and healthy cooking.