Sleep: An important marker for health

If you're longing for a nap around 11 AM, you're not along.  More than one-third of Americans don’t get adequate sleep, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).  In this world of 24/7, that’s not hard to imagine.  What is hard to imagine are all the negative consequences of not getting enough sleep.

What’s enough sleep?  For adults, the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute recommends 7 to 8 hours per night for adults - and more for teens and kids.  Less than 7 hours per night is considered sleep deprivation.  That’s where the negative consequences come in.  Sleep has a profound effect – positive and negative - on health.  Research shows sleep deprivation negatively affects physical, mental and emotional health. 

As a dietitian, I first became interested in sleep when I learned that too little sleep contributes to obesity.  The connection is that the appetite hormones are affected by sleep.  Ghrelin, the hormone that signals hunger, goes up with lack of sleep and leptin, the hormone that signals fullness, goes down.  But obesity is just one of the chronic diseases impacted by inadequate sleep: diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke are some of the others.  The National Institutes of Health supported research shows an astounding number of health conditions related to too little sleep.

Studies indicate kids and teens are more likely to engage in risky behavior like drugs and drinking, have social conflicts, and be overweight and obese when they don’t get enough sleep.  The same is true for adults.  Statistics also show a greater likelihood of car accidents, physical accidents like falling, lack of focus and attention and so on.

From a nutrition standpoint there are foods that can enhance or interrupt sleep.  Caffeine – from coffee, tea, cola, energy drinks – disturbs sleep.  Though alcohol may make you sleepy it interferes with sleep later on. 

Milk and other calcium-rich foods may enhance sleep.  This is yet another reason to meet the three recommended servings per day; choose low and non-fat dairy items like yogurt, cottage cheese and milk and/or calcium-fortified foods.  Chronic insomnia may be a symptom of magnesium deficiency.  Almonds, seafood and green leafy vegetables are rich in magnesium.  Tart cherry juice, research shows, can help improve the quality and duration of sleep.  Part of the reason is tart cherries are a source of melatonin which helps to regulate sleep-wake cycles in the body.

There are many strategies to promote better sleep.  Keep the room cool and dark – covering digital clocks and cable boxes – avoid “action” movies before sleep; and engage is something restful like meditating.  Try to keep the same bedtime on the weekends; it’s especially important for kids to have a set bedtime – and stick with it.  Be physically active during the day.

Your Guide to Healthy Sleep is one of the best resources for science-based information on sleep.  It stresses the importance of lifestyle factors on sleep – an essential part of Confident Health!

Sleeping, photograph © Hey Christine/ flickr