An issue that is not enough addressed in connection with health and fitness is sleep.
Sleep is a significant health concern and just as important as nutrition, exercise and stress management. While we sleep at night, we heal and recuperate from the wear and tear of our day.
Unfortunately, more and more people find it necessary to cut back on their sleep. The consequences for their health and quality of life can be devastating. In fact, sleep deprivation has become such a widespread phenomenon, that some states have enacted legislation that defines “fatigued driving” in similar terms to drunk driving. Lack of sleep is not only a potential health hazard, it affects the safety of everyone on the road and at the work place.
The importance of sleep for your health
Clinical studies have shown that chronic sleep deprivation can be a contributing factor to a number of lifestyle-related illnesses – among them obesity, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. Patients with persistent sleep deficits have routinely shown alterations in their metabolism, inhibiting their ability to manage glucose levels by making their cells increasingly insulin resistant.
Sleeplessness can lead to imbalances in the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol. Potential consequences are weakening of the immune system, risk of a variety of chronic illnesses as well as psychological effects, such as memory loss, mood swings and depression. Sleep deprivation may also have a significant impact on one’s life expectancy.
On the upside, there is compelling evidence that a healthy sleep routine can contribute greatly to our physical and mental well-being as well as the quality of life in general. Getting sufficient sleep ranks among the best defense mechanisms we have to stay healthy and handle stress. We function and perform at our best when we are well-rested. We are better colleagues, parents, companions and lovers when we are relaxed and at ease. We face challenges with more energy and resolve and keep negative or destructive emotions at bay. We are less prone to reach for drugs or alcohol to get high or numb ourselves when the going gets tough. In a word, with enough rest, we are more likely to stay healthy and well all around.
Steps toward a better sleep routine
Like with stress, “sleep management” can be learned. Here are some tips for a better “sleep routine.”
If you have difficulties falling asleep, try to identify the possible causes. You may ask yourself, for instance, whether you work often late into the night or do things that keep your mind engaged. Do you watch TV or movies that entertain and stimulate you shortly before you go to bed? Do you discuss emotional issues or quarrel and get into arguments when it’s bed time? Do you have any pressing concerns, such as finances, taxes or job-related matters that may keep you awake? Even if some of these issues cannot be brought to an immediate solution, it can help to know the reasons for your sleeplessness.
Avoid foods, beverages and substances that may interfere with your sleep. Eating a snack before bed is not uncommon, and some folks swear by it. A few small bites may be acceptable, but I strongly recommend that you stay away from foods that are hard to digest or are loaded with sugar. Stick to “complex” carbohydrates, like whole wheat crackers or toast. Dairy products are a good choice as well. Milk contains an amino acid called L-tryptophan, which has sleep-inducing effects. Avoid too much protein intake, though. For instance, “restless leg syndrome” (RLS) has been shown to occur frequently in connection with diets that are high in protein.
Some people enjoy a late night drink, a so-called “night cap,” before they go to bed. Although alcohol can work as a depressant and may help to put you to sleep, the impact on your metabolism will most likely result in a withdrawal syndrome a few hours later and cause you to awake again.
Likewise, consuming high doses of caffeine late at night is not advisable. Caffeine is a stimulant that doesn’t wear off for hours. So, your last energy boost should not kick in later than four to six hours before bed time.
Nicotine has similar effects. As a smoker, you may think having a cigarette or cigar relaxes you, but it actually induces stimulating substances into your blood stream.
Avoid physical exercise late at night. Some people exercise shortly before they go to bed, hoping it will tire them out. The problem is that vigorous physical activity can also make you feel more energetic, which sabotages the intended effect. If you exercise late, keep it at a low level without getting your heart pumping.
Create an environment that is conducive to your sleep. Your bedroom should be reserved for sleep and sex. Don’t make it your habit to watch TV, work or eat in bed. Minimize disturbances by eliminating noise and light as much as possible. If you are a light sleeper and awake easily, you may consider installing window blinds and even wearing ear plugs. Keep your bedroom temperature constant at a comfortable level and a few degrees cooler than the rest of your dwelling. If you get up during the night, avoid exposure to bright lights and keep a dim night light on instead.
Taking time for an afternoon nap (a.k.a. “siesta”) is recommended, provided you don’t have problems falling asleep at night. Daytime rests, however, should be kept short and not exceed 30 minutes.
Attention to your sleep needs is important for your health and well-being in many ways and should be given a high priority. Don’t assume you can handle sleep deprivation for long periods of time without paying a price. Unrecognized or untreated sleep disorders can lead to serious health consequences, which could be avoided with a little bit more rest. Continue to Week Seven »