Getting a good nights rest is about more than feeling alert the next day. Lack of sleep can negatively impact your health, mood and safety.
Keeping up with our 24/7 world can mean putting our health and wellness at risk. Find out what you can do about it.

When the topic of healthy living comes up, diet and exercise are usually part of the solution. But most people don’t realize that getting enough sleep can be just as important to your health. In fact, medical experts consider sleep the third leg of the stool for overall health and wellness.

Knowing the risks

Numerous medical studies have shown that sleep plays a vital role in immune function, metabolism, memory, learning and other crucial functions. The price we pay for chronic sleep deprivation is not only reflected with the fatigue or lack of focus that can follow a night of poor sleep, but also has profound ramifications for our long-term health and ultimately life expectancy.

Weight gain/obesity: Insufficient sleep is likely to cause weight gain. People who habitually sleep less than six hours per night are much more likely to have a higher than average body mass index (BMI), and people who sleep eight hours have the lowest BMIs.

Diabetes: Research has found that inadequate sleep influences the way the body processes glucose and can potentially lead to type 2 diabetes.

Heart Disease and Hypertension:
Studies have shown that just a single night of insufficient sleep with people suffering from hypertension can cause elevated blood pressure throughout the next day. Eventually, that condition increases the risk factor for cardiovascular disease and stroke.

Mood Disorders: Irritability and moodiness can be caused by a single sleepless night, and long-term mood disorders such as depression, anxiety and mental distress have been connected to chronic sleep issues.

Performance and Public Safety: The toll from lack of sleep can be seen in reduced efficiency in the workplace and accidents such as drowsy driving incidents and fatalities.

Life Expectancy: Studies show that sleeping five hours or less per night increased mortality risk by roughly 15 percent.

How to sleep better

Factors such as stress, shift work and sleep disorders can interfere with a person’s ability to get sufficient sleep. Below are 10 key strategies and treatments to help you get better sleep.

  1. Stay away from caffeine, alcohol, nicotine or stimulants that interfere with sleep.
  2. Turn your bedroom into a sleep-friendly environment: quiet, dark, cool and equipped with a comfortable mattress and pillows.
  3. Establish a soothing pre-sleep routine such as a bath or light reading about an hour or so before bed.
  4. Don’t be a nighttime clock-watcher, as it can actually increase stress and make it harder to fall asleep. If you’re frustrated after trying to fall asleep after 20 minutes, go do something relaxing until you’re ready for sleep.
  5. Use light to your advantage by exposing yourself to natural light in the morning and during the day; this maintains your internal clock on a healthy sleep-wake cycle.
  6. Set your internal clock by going to bed and waking up at the same time each day to ensure a higher quality of sleep.
  7. Nap early or not at all. If you want to nap, plan on keeping it short and before 5 p.m.
  8. Finish dinner several hours before going to bed and avoid foods that could cause indigestion.
  9. Balance fluid intake so that you wont be awakened by the need for a bathroom trip or feeling thirsty.
  10. Exercising early can actually promote restful sleep that evening. Keep your workout at least three hours before you go to bed so your body has time to wind down.

Treating sleep as a priority rather than a luxury can be a huge step to help promote quality sleep and prevent a number of chronic medical conditions. However, its important to be aware that not all sleep problems are so easily addressed. Sleep disorders such as apnea, restless legs syndrome, narcolepsy or other clinical sleep problems should be discussed with your physician. To learn more about healthy sleep, go to www.understandingsleep.org.

Dr. Stuart Quan, M.D., is the Gerald E. McGinnis Professor of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Senior Physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He is currently the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. Dr. Quan also has served as the president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (1999-2000), been on the board of directors of the American Board of Sleep Medicine (1990-1996) and is currently the Editor of the Sleep and Health Education Program at Harvard Medical Schools Division of Sleep Medicine.