When thinking about all the things you have on your to-do list and your bucket list, do you tell yourself "I'll get plenty of sleep when I'm dead"? If you're one of the 1 in 3 adults who do not get adequate sleep (seven hours or more per day) according to a recent report released by the Centers for Disease Control, you may actually reach that grave sooner, or at least not be your healthiest self if you don't get adequate sleep.
I see this often in my practice and also saw it at a sleep event sponsored by Dr. Mehmet Oz and Arianna Huffington in New York City where attendees met with sleep experts, including myself, to have their sleep assessed. At the event I learned just how important sleep is to Ms. Huffington, who has written a forthcoming book on the topic, The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time. I was also reminded of how wide-spread sleep issues are, affecting every demographic - the wealthy, poor, married, single, old, and young. There are no gender, racial or other bounds when it comes to this very real issue.
In many ways, the results of sleep deficits are silent and insidious, having a profound impact on all aspects of a person's life - health, career, relationships, and mental health. If left unchecked and untreated, the results can be devastating.
Sleep is at the epicenter of many problems, but with a careful self- assessment, in many cases small changes can be made that will lead to vast improvements in your sleep.
First though, understand just how serious of an impact sleep deprivation can have on you:
1. You'll feel depressed and anxious.
Overwhelmingly insomnia is one of the most common symptoms my depressed and anxious patients report to me. It's a bit of a double edged sword because poor sleep will make someone more prone to depression and depression/worry will interfere with one's ability to sleep. The good news is that by treating depression, peoples' sleep will improve and by treating insomnia peoples' depression will get better.
2. You'll gain weight.
The hormone ghrelin is related to sleep and weight. It tells your brain when you need to eat, when it should stop burning calories and when it should store energy as fat. When you sleep you require less energy than when you're awake, so your levels of ghrelin decrease. People who don't sleep enough end up with too much ghrelin, tricking the body into thinking it's hungry and that it needs more calories, and it stops burning those calories because it thinks there's a shortage. This leads to packing on pounds (making you even more depressed).
3. You'll develop wrinkles.
Chronic sleep deprivation not only will lead to puffy eyes, but also fine lines and dark circles. Here's why: when you don't get enough sleep, your body releases more of the stress hormone cortisol. In excess amounts, it breaks down collagen, the protein in the skin. This protein is what's responsible for maintaining skin's smoothness and elasticity.
4. You'll Forget Things.
During sleep it is believed that information that is learned during the day is processed and transferred in the brain from the hippocampus to the neocortex. Without adequate sleep this process doesn't occur and information is not stored.
5. You'll become wimpy.
When you don't get enough sleep your body doesn't release enough human growth hormone (HGH). For a young person this hormone promotes growth and as we age it helps to strengthen bones, increase muscle mass, and thicken skin. So sleep will literally make you thin-skinned and wimpy.
Here's how to get better sleep:
1. Go to sleep when you're tired.
Have you ever been lounging on the couch at night, watching TV, and struggling to keep your eyes open to finish the show? Or maybe you're reading a book and you have to keep going back to read the same sentence because you are dozing off mid-page? Well, these are signs that you should actually stop watching that TV, stop reading your book and actually get into bed. Your brain is telling you that you need sleep. There's no clearer sign than this. If you don't get to sleep, then you'll get overtired and it will be hard to fall sleep later. Rather than fighting it, pay attention to it and get yourself to bed.
2. Don't go to sleep if you're not tired.
A big mistake people so often make is that they go to sleep before they are ready, which leads to a cycle of not sleeping and worry about being up. Even though you may think you're doing a good thing by getting into bed by a certain hour, you may actually be causing problems. You see, if you get into bed when you're not tired, you may end up tossing and turning and worrying about not falling asleep. So only get into bed when tired and don't miss your window of opportunity to get to sleep.
3. Do a digital detox.
So often patients tell me that the reason they can't sleep is because they are worried that their alarm clock won't go off. As a result they check it throughout the night and the very thing that is supposed to allow them to let go of their concerns about waking up at a designated time, is preventing them from doing so. Looking at the time only increases anxiety about going to sleep and getting enough of it. Turn the clock away from you and have confidence that it will sound when it is supposed to. If you rely on your smartphone as an alarm clock, be aware that lights including those generated by devices, are incompatible with sleep and might trick the brain into staying awake when you should be sleeping. Electronic gadgets such as phones and tablets stimulate the brain, which is counter to what you're trying to achieve as you wind down for the night. So make your bedroom a device-free zone close to bedtime and by all means, do not sleep with your cell phone by your head. Unconsciously your brain may not allow itself to get into too deep of a sleep knowing a call/text might come through just inches away.
4. Get pumping.
Whether it is challenging your body during the day by pumping iron and aerobic exercise, or stimulating your mind, being active helps to reduce stress and leads to overall wellness. Both will increase your drive for sleep. Pumping through sexual activity also helps with sleep. After an orgasm the hormones prolactin and oxytocin are released. Both promote feelings of relaxation and calm.
5. Watch what you eat and drink close to bed.
Avoid caffeine (teas, coffee, soda) and spicy foods at least six hours before bedtime. Both stimulate the body. Don't drink alcohol close to bedtime. Contrary to what many think, it won't make you sleep like a baby. It may knock you out initially, but within a few hours as the body starts to eliminate the alcohol, it will wake you or, at best, cause a restless sleep.
6. Use your bed for sleep and sex only.
Don't eat, work, or watch TV in your bed. Maintain a separation between bed activities and wake activities. Remember, only sex and sleep in the bed! When it's time to start getting ready for bed, shut off electronic equipment an hour before bedtime, including computers, phones, and tablets. Dim the lights, shut the blinds, and create a relaxing environment. The fewer lights that are on the less likely your mind is to think it needs to be awake and alert. Do activities that are relaxing such as reading a book or watching a TV show (but not one that is too stimulating).
Do your part to improve your sleep. Incorporating one or more of these tips can help get you started on gaining control over a vital (and often overlooked) aspect of your general health. By making small changes you'll catch some more Zzzs, begin to feel better, and that will encourage more changes.
For more tips on leading a healthy lifestyle check out my book Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days.