It’s so nice to stay up that extra hour or two.
Doing nothing. Chilling out. Enjoying the peace and quiet.
You could go to bed earlier, but you’d miss out on having time to yourself.
And you need that time. Time to decompress. Time to unwind.
Besides, you can sleep when you’re dead, right?
Colleagues at work boast of getting 4 hours of sleep. They’re too busy working late and partying hard. They chug energy drinks for breakfast. They’re doing all right. In fact, the boss loves it.
You get 6 hours of sleep on average, not far off the typical American at 6.8 hours a night. You know you should get a full 8 hours, but seriously? Who does that nowadays?
Answer: People who want to stay healthy, young, and gorgeous.
Less than 8 hours of sleep at night is a risk to your health.
What kind of risk?
Obesity. Diabetes. Alzheimer’s. Accelerated aging.
Lack of Sleep Makes You Age Faster
Ten years ago, a University of Chicago endocrinologist did something unremarkable. She restricted a group of young men to 4 hours of sleep a night for 6 days—similar to what they might be getting during finals week, or a busy period at work.
But what she did next woke up the nation.
She ran a series of metabolic tests.
She discovered that this short period of sleep deprivation not only increased the blood cortisol levels in her participants to the levels found in older men. It also increased their levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin, interfered with their ability to metabolize glucose, and caused their testosterone levels to drop.
Want to feel 10 years older? Just spend a week on 4 hours of sleep a night.
That study was just the beginning.
Researchers know now that you not only gain weight when you don’t get enough sleep, but you’re more likely to develop diabetes.
The inflammation caused by insufficient sleep does a number on your immune system, makes you more likely to get depressed, and can cause skin reactions like acne and eczema. Skin needs sleep to stay hydrated and healthy.
Lack of sleep hits the brain even harder. Not only does it impact learning and memory recall (which is why students need a LOT of sleep), but it’s also implicated in the development of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
American president Ronald Reagan and British prime minister Maggie Thatcher were well known for getting very little sleep, and both later developed Alzheimer’s. (For the record, current U.S. president Donald Trump boasts of getting 4 to 5 hours of sleep a night.)
We now know that sleep “washes” the brain, cleaning away the toxins associated with Alzheimer’s.
During the deep sleep phase, a wave of cerebrospinal fluid gently washes through your brain every 20 seconds, carrying away beta-amyloid and other waste products.
The Bit Fat Problem with Sleep
But there’s a big fat problem…
It’s all very well to know you need more sleep, but how do you get it?
I lost my ability to enjoy a full, restful night of sleep after becoming a parent. The normal sleep deprivation of caring for a newborn threw my sleep patterns out of whack. Any sound from my daughter’s room woke me instantly. (My bladder was never the same, either, which meant I was always getting up in the night!)
Aging has an impact on sleep quality. As you get older, you spend less time in deep sleep, the phase of sleep that washes the brain. You have a harder time falling asleep, and you wake more often during the night.
Sleep disorders are becoming more and more common. Insomnia affects 60 million Americans. Financial insecurity, job stress, and busy lives make it hard to turn off when bedtime comes around. Not to mention the impact on sleep of chronic pain, restless leg syndrome, or sleep apnea.
So what’s the solution?
Sleep experts suggest good sleep hygiene, which includes removing all light sources from your bedroom, keeping your bedroom cool, staying on a strict sleep schedule, avoiding screen time an hour before bed (or turning on your blue light filter), and limiting caffeine after noon.
But many Americans turn to pills to get them to sleep.
Melatonin is one of the most popular supplements. It’s a natural hormone that tells the body it’s time to sleep. Blue light affects melatonin levels, so screen users can find it useful.
But more isn’t better when it comes to melatonin. Most supplements are in doses of 3 milligrams or more. Melatonin may be most effective at small doses of half a milligram.
Because melatonin is a hormone, it’s not recommended for use by children. If you’re taking other medications, like birth control pills or anti-coagulants, you’ll want to talk to your doctor first.
Sleeping pills are another short-term option that may appear safer than they really are.
I was surprised to discover that many countries regulate sleeping pills more heavily than the United States. When I was living in New Zealand, for example, I couldn’t just go to a pharmacy and buy over-the-counter sleeping pills. I had to talk to a pharmacist about why I needed the pills and give them my name and details before I could buy them.
Sleeping pills prescribed by a doctor may not be a safer option.
A 2012 study linked prescription sleep aids, such as Ambien, Restoril, Lunestra and Sonata, with an increased risk of cancer, suggesting that taking sleeping pills could be as risky as smoking cigarettes. As few as 1 to 18 sleeping pills a year increased the risk of death overall by three and a half times.
The study focused on a class of sleeping aids known as hypnotic sleeping pills. The study did not look at people who used over-the-counter pills.
Some doctors offer prescription help with the off-label use of an old-school antidepressant, trazodone. Trazodone makes you feel sleepy, which makes it useful for patients struggling with depression and anxiety on top of insomnia. Talk to your doctor.
It’s tough when you know you need sleep but you can’t get it.
What helps you sleep? Have you found any creative solutions to get more sleep? Let us know in the comments!