I’m not the kind of guy you have to lecture about getting more sleep. I LIKE to sleep and I’ve ALWAYS been an eight-hours-a-night guy — sometimes accompanied by gales of laughter from friends and family who think it’s weird to be in bed by ten.
But it seems I’m in the minority. Skimping on sleep has become the American norm. And just as all the goody-goodies warned them, Americans pay a terrible price in their health, including a greater danger of cancer. By some estimates, sleep deprivation is the #1 health problem in America.
Eating yourself to death — that I can understand. Prime rib and Black Forest cake might be worth dying for. The pleasure is undeniable. But wrecking your health because you never get enough sleep? To me, that’s weird!
The 24/7 electrified, wired world
The wonders of our electrified world have stolen a decent night’s sleep from us. Before electricity, most people went to bed when darkness fell. During the winter, that was early, and people slept a lot. Candles and lamp oil were expensive in a world where the average family made a few hundred dollars a year (if they were lucky). So the sensible thing to do was go to bed.
Then came the electric light bulb.
But it really took television to turn us into addicts to excitement and stimulation. It’s safe to say that, pre-television, everyone got plenty of sleep. Once the tube was ensconced in every home like an altar, millions stayed up to watch the Tonight show and assorted other late-night distractions. And these days, sleep also loses out to the Internet, e-mail, and who knows what else.
Me, I wouldn’t give up an hour’s sleep to watch Leno (or Johnny Carson, back in the Stone Age). But, as I said, I’m in the minority.
How sleep-deprived are YOU?
Take this simple five-point test… suggested by James Maas, PhD, pioneer in the field of sleep research, sought-after speaker, and author of the New York Times Best Seller book, Power Sleep:
1) Do you need an alarm clock to wake up in the morning?
2) Do you hit the snooze button several times before finally dragging yourself out of bed?
3) Do you sleep in on weekends?
4) Do you fall asleep the minute your head hits the pillow?
5) Do you crave a nap to get through the day?
Did you answer ‘yes’ to any of these?
If so, consider yourself sleep-deprived.
You’re got plenty of company. Consider:
1. Sleep problems are reaching epidemic levels, now estimated to be the #1 health related problem in America.1
2. 43% of respondents report that daytime sleepiness interfered with their work and other normal daytime activities.2
3. In a 2002 “Sleep in America” poll of 1,000 adults, nearly a third said that they need at least eight hours to avoid feeling sleepy the next day. However, their average sleep time was only 6.9 hours on weeknights and 7.5 on weekends.3
4. Young people are worst offenders. Nearly every high school and college student is seriously sleep deprived, getting an average 6 hours per night, but needing 9-1/2 hours to be fully alert.
5. Falling asleep the moment your head hits the pillow is a sure sign of sleep deprivation… a well-rested person takes 15-20 minutes to fall asleep.
6. A NCERx 4,000-person survey found that only 19% were diagnosed with a sleep disorder, yet 74% said they got less sleep than they needed. Forty-six percent said they missed what they needed by at least three hours!4
But wait — it gets much worse than just feeling worn out.
Short-Term Consequences of Sleep Loss
TheLack of sleep has dramatic affects on your health and quality of life.
If you lose one night’s sleep, you’ll be irritable and clumsy the next day. You either feel exhausted, or you feel hyped because you’re running on adrenalin (and caffeine, no doubt).
After a second night’s sleep loss, most people have trouble concentrating and will make mistakes on routine tasks. Three missed nights, and they start to hallucinate and lose grasp of reality.
If you get just a few hours of sleep each night, over time you incur a large ‘sleep debt’ — and you start to see the above problems, not by losing a whole night at once but by cumulatively losing a little sleep EVERY night.
You can feel the short-term consequences of sleep loss right away. They’re obvious. But it’s the long term impact on your health that can be super devastating (beyond the obvious risks of drowsy driving and workplace accidents).
Hidden Long-Term Risks of Sleep Debt
As if the above costs aren’t enough, new studies show that chronic sleep deprivation is one of the biggest predictors of obesity.
Your quality and quantity of sleep dictates the hormonal activity that regulates appetite — via leptin and ghrelin. Sleep deprivation causes your leptin levels to drop and ghrelin to rise dramatically. Leptin signals ‘fullness’ so if it’s disrupted, you end up craving food — especially carbs. Ghrelin sets off your hunger pangs.
I think it’s fascinating that sleep correlates with the other bad habits that are killing millions.
In a national study of nearly 10,000 adults, 32-49 year-olds who sleep less than 7 hours were significantly more likely to be obese.5
Another study of 18,000 adults found that those who regularly sleep less than four hours per night were 73% more likely to suffer from obesity.6
So… Those who sleep the least weigh the most? Who would have thought losing weight was so easy you could do it in your sleep?
Too little sleep also causes decreased immune function. Sleep deprivation adversely affects your white blood cell count and your body’s ability to fight infections. It makes your immune system vulnerable and less able to fight off potentially cancerous cells.
And then comes the real biggie…
Sleep Deprivation Can Cause Cancer
New studies suggest that how you sleep may determine how well your body fights cancer.
In fact, working the graveyard shift may increase your cancer risk.
Recent studies indeed show that women who worked nights for years seem more prone to breast cancer. And men who work the night shift have higher rates of prostate cancer.7
When animals have their light-dark schedules reversed, they’re more likely to grow cancerous tumors and they die more quickly.8
Several reports from the Harvard Nurses’ Health Study link insufficient or irregular sleep to an increase in colon cancer and breast cancer.
How Does Insufficient Sleep Impact Cancer?
Sleep problems affect two hormones that influence cancer cells.
Cortisol regulates your immune system and releases certain natural killer cells that help fight developing cancer cells. Cortisol levels peak at dawn, suggesting sleep’s role. (This is the same stress hormone triggered during anxiety.)
The second hormone is melatonin, produced by your brain during sleep. Scientists think it may have antioxidant properties that help prevent cellular damage leading to cancer.
Melatonin can only be released in total darkness, and may cause a reduction in estrogen production. Researchers speculate that experiencing light late at night may interfere with melatonin release, allowing estrogen to rise, and promoting the growth of breast and endometrial cancers.
I read this notion years ago. Since then — for what it’s worth — I avoid turning on the lights if I have to get up in the night. It may help avoid a disruption in melatonin production, and I can say this for sure: it makes it easier to get back to sleep. Nothing wakes me up like a bright glare of light when I’ve been deeply asleep and my pupils are dilated as big as saucers. If you can’t feel your way around in the dark, the next best thing is using a small nightlight.
Melatonin is also the prime suspect in the ‘shift work theory’. People working in artificial light at night may have lower melatonin levels, raising cancer risk.
Further, certain processes like cell division and DNA repair happen at regular times. If your body does something at an unusual time — like produce insulin in the middle of the night to digest food — a chain reaction of biological mistakes is set up.
Potentially even worse than the graveyard shift is flipping between night and day shifts. Also at risk are frequent long-haul travelers and insomniacs, who experience similar sleep disruption.
You need a dark night’s sleep… eight pitch-black hours every night. So why don’t people get their eight hours?
Key Causes of Sleep Troubles…
Why is quality sleep becoming such a rarity?
In the NCERx survey cited above, 65% of respondents named stress as a major factor in insomnia. Closely following that, 53% said they felt work or school didn’t leave them enough time to sleep.
Ten Tips for Improving Your Sleep
1. Reduce stress as much as possible. Don’t sweat the small stuff!
2. Put some quiet space between your day and your night. Get to your room 20 minutes before bedtime, and relax with light reading, meditation, or quiet music, keeping the lights low and the atmosphere relaxing.
3. Reserve your bedroom only for sleeping and sex. Get the TVs, computers, and other non-sleep items out of there.
4. Complete exercise at least 3 hours before bedtime.Get sunshine every day. Your body needs the extremes of light and dark.
5. Get sunshine every day. Your body needs the extremes of light and dark.
6. Eat properly. Healthy people sleep better. Take our evening meal at least 2 hours before bedtime, preferably 3. Never overeat just before bedtime.
7. Make your bedroom pitch-black, quiet, and cool. Use black-out curtains. Use ear plugs if there’s street noise or noise from other family members in nearby rooms. Run the AC if appropriate.
8. Avoid stimulants within six to eight hours of bedtime… including all soda, coffee, tea, sports drinks, and aspirin. I’m convinced that caffeine has a more profound effect on people than they realize. They don’t know that it affects their wakefulness 12 hours or more after they drink it. And here’s a surprise: alcohol is not viewed as a stimulant, but it DOES interfere with sleep patterns.
9. Set a regular bedtime and keep it on weekends also. If you can live without an alarm clock, do so. You’ll wake up when your body is rested.
10. Try relaxation techniques… Counting sheep really works — you bore yourself to sleep. Or imagine yourself on a beach or in the warm sun.
You may be one of those people who have been sleepy for so very long you don’t know how it feels to be wide awake.
Let the world wait till tomorrow — not your sleep. It is a fundamental health need.
Once you truly start sleeping again, you’ll love the joy of sleep’s restoration and rejuvenation, and the energy you’ll have — not to mention its cancer-protective benefits.