How often do you hear someone say, “I had a great night’s sleep last night!” or “I feel refreshed and energetic!”? Probably not very often. Feeling sluggish seems to be the new normal. In fact, according to the National Sleep Foundation, it is the new normal: most Americans are sleep-deprived. But not getting enough sleep may be causing more trouble for you than just that pesky drowsy feeling: it could be seriously harming your health.
Why aren’t we sleeping?
Centuries ago, it was common for people to sleep 8 to 9 hours each day. But now, only about 25% of Americans get 8 or more hours of sleep. The reasons we are not sleeping are many. We live in a 24/7 society—practically anything we want to do is available around the clock, from fitness centers to pharmacies to department stores.
We are working long hours, transporting our kids to activities, trying to make time for friends and fitness and entertainment. When the heat is on, the first thing to go is usually sleep. And it’s usually not even a conscious decision to skimp on sleep-we just get in bed a little later most nights, because we are so pressed and pushed.
But even when we get into bed, we aren’t guaranteed sleep. The National Sleep Foundation reports that 60% of Americans have sleep problems. That means more than half of us struggle to sleep. And it is taking its toll.
Dangers of sleep deprivation
“The foundations of good health are good diet, good exercise and good sleep, but two out of three doesn’t get you there,”1
— Dr. Anne Calhoun, neurology professor, University of North Carolina.
Eating healthily and getting plenty of exercise are not enough to make up for the danger that sleep deprivation poses to your health. Adults need around 8 hours of sleep each night, although some studies indicate that as little as 7 and one-half hours can be sufficient. Getting less than that can have serious consequences:
Risk of Cardiovascular Disease: If you get less than 6 hours of sleep each night and have disturbed sleep, you have a 48% greater risk of developing or dying from heart disease and a 15% greater risk of developing or dying from a stroke.2 Lack of sleep can cause high blood pressure, blocked arteries, stroke, kidney disease and dementia.
Obesity: Sleep shortage is directly linked to obesity. When you don’t get enough sleep, two powerful hormones that control hunger are disrupted. The result is that you feel hungrier and have fewer sensations of feeling “full.”
But without enough sleep you will also feel more stressed, which encourages the production of the hormone cortisol in your body. This hormone causes you to crave high-carbohydrate foods such as potato chips and brownies, and then deposits those carbs as fat around your belly—the most dangerous place to store fat.
Pre-diabetes is also a risk for those who don’t get enough sleep. Trying to get by on less than 6 hours of sleep per night can cause impaired glucose tolerance.
Compromised immune system: Why is it that two people can be exposed to the same germs, but only one of them gets sick? The reason is the immune system. If your immune system is functioning well, you can ward off many illnesses. But if something happens to compromise your immune response, you will be vulnerable to infections, bacteria, viruses, and even some autoimmune diseases such as arthritis and asthma.
When you do not get enough sleep, your immune system becomes stressed and compromised. You actually have a decrease in white blood cells, and those that remain are less active. The result is that you will get sick more often.
Impaired exercise performance: As if the threat of heart disease, obesity and immune suppression weren’t enough, lack of sleep can negatively impact your fitness efforts. It’s not uncommon for people to struggle to maintain their normal level of workout intensity when they are sleep deprived. You just won’t have the energy to push through. Also, your muscles repair and rebuild while you sleep: if you don’t allow your body this recovery time, you will be at a significant disadvantage during your next workout.
Make time for sleep
The truth is, if you don’t make time now for adequate sleep, you will likely be forced in the future to make time for illness. It may take significant effort to arrange your schedule and priorities to carve out time for more sleep, but the payoff will be increased health, energy and productivity!