THE BLOG

Your Health Counts on Counting Sheep

Are you staying healthy?

When we hear this, most of us think about our annual checkups, how many fruits and vegetables we eat, or whether we exercised enough for the day. But there's an important tool we can't forget: our pillows. When it comes to our health, sleeping habits can be just as important as diet and exercise.

Thanks to research from scientists from around the world, including our colleagues at the National Institutes of Health, we are learning just how crucial a good night's rest is. Though new research has started to question how different our sleeping patterns today are from those of earlier societies, the advice from the public health community and sleep experts still strongly says that better sleep means better health.

You'll probably spend about a third of your entire life sleeping. And while some people used to think that this time was spent with a quiet mind and rested body, the truth is that your body is hard at work during those hours. While you sleep, your brain is forming the neural pathways that help us learn, create memories and develop new insights. And your body is setting a pattern for the release of hormones essential to how you use energy and protect against infection.

Unfortunately, just as we learn more about sleep's role in our health, we are also learning that we're not getting enough. More than one-third of adults report daytime sleepiness for 15 days or more each month that gets in the way of work, driving and spending time with friends or family.

Too little sleep is enormously expensive. Chronic sleep loss or sleep disorders affect as many as 70 million Americans, costing our health care system an estimated $15.9 billion each year and reducing our economy's productivity.

For you individually, a lack of sleep can hamper your performance, your mood and your health. It can slow down your reaction time and cloud your thinking, even if you cut back by just a single hour. We also know that people who chronically miss sleep are at higher risk of suffering depression. And researchers have linked less sleep with a higher risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and other medical conditions. It's even been shown to make immunizations like your flu shot less effective.

Not getting enough sleep can be especially bad for children. They usually have different sleep needs than adults, depending on their age. Sleep helps the body produce valuable hormones that help children grow, build muscle mass, fight infections and repair cells. The less sleep kids get, the more likely they are to be overweight, to develop diabetes and to overeat foods with high levels of carbohydrates or calories.

So starting tonight, follow some of these Dos and Don'ts to get enough sleep to feel refreshed and restored:

DO:
  • Stick to a consistent sleep schedule
  • Relax before bed
  • Create a good sleeping environment by keeping noises, bright lights, TVs or computers away from the bedroom.
DON'T:
  • Have caffeine, alcohol or large meals and beverages before bed
  • Take a nap after about 3 p.m.

If you're still finding it tough to get a good night's rest, talk to your doctor.

And take a look at the information available from our National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health at www.nhlbi.nih.gov. You can find factsheets in English and Spanish and even take a quiz on your sleep IQ!

Just don't do it right before bed. Sleep tight, America!