After our recent family vacation, I’ve been thinking about the importance of sleep. More specifically, I’m considering the implications of lack of sleep. One morning, midway through our trip, I was so tired that I walked into an open glass shower door, leaving me with a nasty bump and an ugly bruise! After a little research about sleep, it seems I am not alone in missing some ZZZs. Our nation is facing a full-on sleep deprivation epidemic.
So just how many of us are walking into doors or dozing off mid-sentence? According to a Gallup poll in 2013, a full 40% of US adults get less than the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep. In fact, Americans overall average 6.8 hours of sleep, which is more than an hour less than adults in 1940.
Lack of sleep is linked to some of the worst disasters in history. It has been implicated in the Challenger explosion, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl! But the problems with sleep deprivation are much closer to home than many people might think. “People just don’t realize how important sleep is, and what the health consequences are of not getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis,” says Carl Hunt, MD, former Director of the nonprofit National Center on Sleep Disorders Research at the National Institutes of Health. He adds, “Sleep is just as important for overall health as diet and exercise.”
In an astonishing 2013 study at the University of Surrey in England, researchers investigated the difference in subjects who got 6 ½ hours and those who got 7 ½ hours of sleep. They discovered that in addition to a reduction of cognitive abilities (think running into an open door!), when the volunteers lost just one hour of sleep, ”genes that are associated with processes like inflammation, immune response and response to stress became more active. “ The researchers also saw increased gene activity associated with diabetes and cancer. The reverse happened when the volunteers added just one more hour of sleep.
Sleep deprivation is also linked to obesity. While many studies point to our poor eating habits and lack of exercise to explain our current obesity epidemic, researchers at Columbia University found that people who sleep fewer than the recommended seven hours minimum a night are heavier, tend to gain more weight over time, and have a harder time losing weight than those who sleep more. In short, our obesity epidemic and our sleep deprivation epidemics are inextricably linked.
A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that when people were tired, they ate more late-night snacks, and the snacks they chose were more likely to be high-carb snacks to satisfy their cravings. An additional study found tired people people tend to eat bigger portions of all foods, also contributing that weight gain. Sleepy brains, it appears, crave junk food and eat more of it than their more rested counterparts.
So, before trying to fit into that bikini this summer, catch some ZZZs before catching the rays because hitting the sack is just as important as hitting the gym!