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Patriot Life - Sleep Right

Winter 2016
Issue No. 6

Sleep Right

Date: January 1, 2016

Avoid health problems associated with poor sleep—like weight gain, heart attack and diabetes—by taking easy steps to slumber well.

illustration of a woman sleeping on the crest of the moon
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If you felt better rested when we gained an hour at the end of daylight saving time in November, it might not be for the reason you think. To begin with, few people actually use that extra hour to sleep.

What really might be responsible is that your waking time is now more aligned with the daylight—a physical cue that makes all the difference, says Rachel Salas, M.D., assistant medical director for the Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep at Howard County General Hospital.

The human biological internal clock, or circadian rhythm, is designed to respond to light and darkness, says Salas. When our activity levels don’t correspond with those sunlight cues, they throw off our circadian rhythm, causing disturbances in sleep. Waking, driving to work and driving home in the dark isolate people from the signals their bodies need.

“Their circadian rhythm is like, ‘What’s the schedule?’ Getting an extra hour back can help reset people with sunlight exposure,” Salas explains.

And though many people don’t pay much attention to getting enough sleep, it can be one of the most important factors in overall health. Getting too little of it, or getting poor-quality sleep, can cause weight gain—either because you are too tired to be active or because the hormones that regulate feelings of hunger and fullness are disrupted.

Poor sleep—from undiagnosed sleep apnea, for example—can also contribute to erectile dysfunction. Most seriously, it can increase the risk for cardiovascular disease, including heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure and diabetes.

On the flip side, getting good-quality sleep and enough of it makes you feel better and look younger, says Salas, who notes that somewhere between seven and nine hours is optimal for most adults. People who slumber well have better memory and concentration, and are less likely to be involved in motor vehicle and other kinds of accidents. They also tend to feel less moody or grouchy.

Often, you can achieve big improvements in the quality of your slumber through the simple act of making sleep consistent—going to bed and waking at the same time every single day. Consistency, Salas says, may be even more important than quantity of sleep. Many people go to bed at variable times, sleep in on weekends and try to catch up on sleep by taking naps, none of which are helpful. “If you get 10 hours of sleep a night but it’s not in line with your circadian rhythm, you can perform like a sleep-deprived person,” she says.

Several years ago, Salas decided to test the consistency premise for herself, going to bed at 11 p.m. every night and waking at 7 a.m. every morning for two weeks. After just five days, she says, “I felt like I hadn’t slept this well since middle school.”

Salas says that many women, in particular, may live with constant fatigue but assume it’s because they’re “doing it all” due to unavoidable responsibilities at work and at home. In fact, they may be experiencing an undiagnosed sleep disorder.

“The bottom line is to remember that nobody’s safe when it comes to sleep disorders,” Salas says. “If you feel you’re getting enough sleep and you think it’s good quality, but you’re still very tired, that’s a big red flag to go get evaluated. The risks involved with untreated sleep disorders are so high.”

Start by contacting your primary care provider, who may be able to help or can refer you to a sleep specialist for an evaluation. The good news: Common sleep disorders, such as apnea, insomnia or restless legs syndrome, can all be treated.

In general, most of us are sleep-deprived from irregular sleep habits, compounded by evenings spent overstimulated by lights and electronics that further confuse our circadian rhythm. “Your brain is like, ‘What is going on?’ It has no cues about when bedtime is,” she says, adding, “it’s not the 1500s anymore,” when people rose with the sun and retired to bed after sunset. “People nowadays are passing out from exhaustion.”


Toward Better Z’s

More than 60 million Americans suffer from poor sleep quality. If
you’re ready to get better sleep, following these steps may help:
  • Make sleep a priority.
  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
  • Get regular exercise.
  • Use low-level lighting in the evening instead of overhead lights, which can interfere with your circadian rhythm.
  • Shut down electronics at least 30 minutes before bedtime.
  • Keep your bedroom cool.
  • If you’re getting a good amount of sleep, have consistent sleep and wake times, and you’re still tired, that’s a red flag for a sleep disorder. Contact your primary care provider, who may refer you to a sleep specialist for an evaluation.