“Who needs sleep? I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” (that may be sooner than you think if you don’t get enough sleep)

An 11 year study just published by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology may be the first study to prove a relationship between getting enough sleep and having a heart attack.  Over 50,000 adults were followed over 11 years.  Those that reported insomnia symptoms showed a 27 – 45% increase in heart attack incidence during that time. (the worse the insomnia, the higher the incidence of heart attack)  Norwegian researcher Dr. Lars (how did I know his name was Lars?) Laugsand says the study needs confirmation, but it’s a good first step in identifying another possible risk factor for heart disease.

Poor sleep habits have already been linked with high blood pressure, impaired immunity, poor memory, depression, obesity, and diabetes.

43%-51% of Americans polled in 2010 aged 13 – 45 said they rarely get a good night’s sleep.  That’s too high. 

Insomnia has become more common today because of the “so much to do and so little time” lifestyle many of us have adopted.  It is often overlooked when people ask the question, “Why do I feel like crap all the time?”

Why should I sleep?

Contrary to what some think, sleeping isn’t a form of your body and brain “turning off”  or “resting”.  Your brain remains active during this time, but chemical reactions and processes that occur during sleep allow the brain to “reorganize” and “repair”.  Growth hormone is manufactured and secreted during sleep which is one of the reasons why infants and children sleep more than adults.  What you learned during the day becomes etched into your memory at night.

Your brain undergoes a series of cycles during sleep.  You must reach all stages of this cycle 4-5 times during the night to get “healthful” sleep time.  Disturbed or interrupted sleep does not seem to count.   You may be in the bed for 8 hours with your eyes closed, but if you don’t reach the proper cycles, it’s as if you weren’t sleeping at all.

stages of sleep

Image taken from sleepforkids.org

Poor sleep, or dozing, is just as bad for you as no sleep.

Do I have insomnia?

There are different ranges and causes for insomnia.  If you have trouble falling asleep (it takes more than 30 minutes to fall asleep) or staying asleep for more than 3 night/week for over a month, that is termed as chronic insomnia.  Sometimes there is a specific problem associated with the sleeplessness that causes a problem for just a short period of time such as if your dog died or you lost your job.  That would be called acute insomnia.  Once the problem is dealt with, the sleep returns.

Interestingly, more than 8 out of 10 people laying awake have secondary insomnia.  That is, their insomnia occurs because of some specific reason like medical conditions, eating patterns or habits, or sleep apnea.  If you can find the reason, you can treat the cause and the sleep will correct itself.   For example, if you always have 2 cups of coffee before bedtime,……you get the idea.

If you have sleep apnea, you may not even know that you aren’t sleeping well.  With sleep apnea, you seem to be sleeping, but during sleep, you stop breathing momentarily.  This causes the brain to switch to survival mode to force you to breath.  Because of this process, the brain never gets to go into that deep cycle of sleep.  Sleep apnea can be very dangerous and sometimes requires a device that delivers forced oxygen via a mask into your lungs while you sleep.  Loud snoring can sometimes indicate sleep apnea.  This often occurs in overweight people but can occur in anyone.  Sleep apnea can only be properly diagnosed with a sleep study. (you are monitored during sleep at a lab)
Children with enlarged tonsils can also have sleep apnea which causes them to have poor attention span, tiredness, and irritability during the day. (think your kid has ADD? Check his sleeping habits)

Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is another cause of poor sleep.  You may have this and not even know it.

For the other near 20% of those suffering from insomnia, the sleeplessness is the primary problem and is its own disorder and can be treated with establishing lifestyle changes,  behavioral cognitive therapy, or medications and/or supplements.  If you are among this crowd it’s important to get help from your doctor or naturopath.

What’s the worst that can happen?Adults (approximately age 21 and up) need 7-9 hours of sleep a night to be healthy.  I know some of you are saying, “it will never happen”.   It’s hard to carve out enough time for sleep when there is so much going on with jobs, school, and families, but the quality (and quantity, according to this new study) of your life depends on it.  If you don’t get enough, it will lead to:
  • depression/anxiety: studies show that insomnia precedes clinical depression and if the insomnia is cured, the depression may be stopped.  In non-depressed people, REM or deep sleep causes chemical changes in our brain to regulate mood, but in the depressed individual, the REM sleep is flawed which affects mood.  Sleep also helps to consolidate memory, but in the depressed, only the negative memories are processed. (see full article here)
  • high blood pressure: High blood pressure risk was identified in poor sleepers in a 2011 study done by the British Heart Foundation.  During sleep, your blood pressure drops as a normal response.  In those with poor sleep patterns no blood pressure drop is seen.  These people went on to develop full blown hypertension.
  • diabetes: a study done at the University of Chicago Med School showed that lack of REM sleep significantly lowered a persons sensitivity to insulin.  Insulin is secreted by your body to regulate blood sugar.  If you can’t process insulin, your blood sugar remains high = diabetes.
  • obesity:  one recent study showed individuals chose high calorie, high carb, unhealthy foods when they were fatigued and tired from lack of sleep. Insomnia causes a metabolic change in an area of the brain that responds to high calorie foods.  A small study seen in the Annals of Internal Medicine showed dieters burned less fat and more muscle when they slept 5 1/2 hours vs those who slept 8 1/2 hours.  Not getting enough sleep also boosts blood cortisol levels, the hormone that causes belly fat. Here’s another study that confirms it.
  • impaired immunity:  during sleep your body releases cytokines that aid in fighting infection. Poor sleep habits reduce the production of these proteins so they are not available when your body needs them.  This leads to increased susceptibility to bugs and more sickness.  This was actually measured in adults receiving the flu vaccine.  Those with insomnia did not produce the level of antibodies (flu fighters) that the good sleepers did.
  • poor memory:  during sleep, our memories are “consolidated”. You take what you have learned and seen that day, and convert it to “hard copy” in your brain to retrieve later if you need it.  Disrupted sleep does not allow for this conversion.
  • mood disorders:   during deep sleep, chemicals that regulate mood are released.  Without these chemicals, we get “pain-in-the-ass syndrome”. Lack of sleep leads to irritability (we all know people who need their sleep, don’t we?)

    organic eye make up remover

    Didn’t get your sleep Simon?

  • Cancer: Here’s the kicker: a 2012 study looking at 412 post-menopausal breast cancer patients showed a definitive link between lack of sleep and more aggressive tumors and recurrence.  The study demonstrated that those who reported getting an average of 6 hours of sleep/night or less developed more aggressive tumors with a greater rate of cancer recurrence.  There was no difference in pre-menopausal women suggesting there is a different underlying process when certain hormone are involved.   This was the first of its kind, so more research is needed.

Greater than 80% of people who can’t sleep probably could if they made some changes.

Want to catch your ZZZs? Here are some tips and myths:
  • set a routine: try to go to bed around the same time each night. Have a bedtime routine that consists of getting dressed, bathroom stuff (going and washing brushing teeth etc) and some form of relaxing activity for 10-15 minutes before you try to sleep like reading, listening to music (probably not Metallica) or taking a warm bath.
  • avoid alcohol, caffeine and full meals at least 3 hours before sleep time.
  • no naps after 3 pm
  • get some form of regular exercise (at least 20 minutes 4x/week) but try not to exercise within 2 hours of bedtime
  • keep your bedroom dark and cool.  Think “cave”.
  • use earplugs for noise a mask for light, or “white noise machines”
  • if you worry about the next days chores, make a “to-do” list before you go to bed
  • use your bed only for sleep (and sex…but you can have sex in places other than your bed.. just to be clear) not for just resting or working
  • make sure you’re getting enough Vitamin B6 as it is this vitamin that is needed to make melatonin
10 Common Sleep Myths:  
1.  Watching TV is a good way to fall asleep. It’s the worst way.  Your brain reacts to light and dark by secreting substances which make us drowsy.  When your brain sees light (TV, computer, cell phone even) it causes a reaction in the pinneal gland to stop making melatonin.  Melatonin is a hormone that helps us get tired and sleep.  You need dark to start the melatonin flowing. Turn off the damn cell phone, too!

2.  Having a glass of wine before bed relaxes me.  You may feel relaxed, but alcohol blocks the ability of your brain to cycle through the stages of sleep causing lack of sleep symptoms.  You can fall asleep, but your sleep is flawed.  Have a glass of wine with dinner instead.

3.  You can always “catch up” on your sleep if you don’t get enough.  That may sometimes work for the following day’s sleep, but you can’t sleep on Sunday for all the sleep you’ve missed during the week.sheep sleeping

4.  If you wake up in the middle of the night, try counting sheep.   This has actually ben studied and it was found that counting sheep  makes people more stressed out and anxious and actually delayed them falling back to sleep.  If you wake up in the night and can’t go back after lying there for 15 minutes, get out of bed and engage in a relaxing activity like listening to music or a boring radio talk show. Try to avoid light exposure and looking at the clock. Return to bed when you start to feel sleepy.

5. The older you get, the less sleep you need.   7-9 hours is the requirement for all adults.  Sleep patterns may change, (taking naps, waking during the night) but the requirements remain the same.

6.  I don’t have insomnia because I fall asleep easily.    If you fall asleep easily, but get up in the middle of the night or if you wake up very early (between 3 -6 am) every morning (and it’s not because your alarm went off) and this happens 3x/week you have insomnia.

7.  Sleeping pills are addictive    Addictive may not be the right word.  Your body can become “used to” having that medication every night to fall asleep, or you may just become lax and don’t want to do all the things listed in the tips section above.  You may also think “I will never be able to sleep without this pill” but if you try, you can.

Sleeping pills work by relaxing us (most insomniacs note anxiety as a reason for their insomnia) and by causing amnesia.  We don’t remember waking up during the night, so we feel like we had a good night’s sleep.  Some of the newer pills (ambien lunesta etc) even have had some odd sleepwalking cases…people eating and driving and not being able to remember it.A piece by Harvard Science states that non-drug therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy or relaxation techniques actually work better than sleeping pills. There are some great tapes using guided imagery and other techniques. Here’s one  that I found helpful at times.

8.  Melatonin is natural so it’s safe to take for sleep.   Any supplement you take can have unhealthy effects.  Your body produces this hormone, melatonin, from the amino acid triptophan (found in certain foods…yes turkey is one).  Melatonin is a hormone, just like estrogen and thyroxin.  There are a long list of side effects that go along with any hormone supplement.  Women who are or want to become pregnant should not take it.  It may cause blood pressure drops, mood changes, and many others. See a complete list here.
Just because you can buy it over the counter does not mean it is safe.student sleeping
9.    Cramming for a test is a good way to study .   Maybe I’m writing this so my college student will read it, but in any case, the practice of staying up all night to study does not work    Learning takes place while we sleep.  In order to “learn” we have to transfer memories from short term to longterm memory.  This only happens when out brain reorganizes things during true restful REM sleep.

10.  If I am tired at 3 pm, I didn’t get a good night’s sleep.  Actually, your body has a normal rhythm called a “circadian rhythm”.  The human body is programmed to sleep between midnight and 7am and then again between 1-3 pm. (hence the term siesta)  It is normal for you to feel tired during this afternoon time.  A short brisk walk, or drinking fluids (not just caffeine) can help to wake you up.

Sleep is important! Get yours tonight!

Interesting sleep fact: A whale only sleeps 1 1/2 hours per day and its brain sleeps in shifts: the right side of the brain sleeps for 1 1/2 hours, then the left. 


Your guide to healthy sleep 
Sleep resources 
National Sleep Foundation
A sleep guide for kids 
Test your sleep IQ 
See the latest poll on how America sleeps 

Study on lack of sleep causing diabetes and obesity

Categories: health, health and wellness, healthy living, healthy living blogs

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21 replies

  1. Turns out a lot of new data is saying the human body is meant to sleep for 3-4 hours, get up for 1-3 hours mid-night and then back to sleep for an additional 3-4 hours. Still – that adds to 8 hours of sleep. 🙂

    Example: asleep from 9pm-1am, up to do chores and spend time with neighbours (you know, when we lived in villages and knew our neighbours), then back to bed from 3am-7am. Of course then we were more depenent on daylight for farming and daily activities… now we just light up our nights.

    These mid-night awakenings are now being looked at in literature from the midevil era all the way back to romans (and likely before).

    Still, a great article… it took me 5 years to get my husband to deal with his insomnia… and, nevermind him, I’m happier for it! LOL

    Sweet dreams!

  2. I can attest to this through my experience. Lack of sleep really affects my mental health, memory and ability to function well. It’s also so true about the correlations between insomnia and depression. About Melatonin, I heard that some people use Melatonin to help their body adjust to a time difference more quickly, but I didn’t realize it had side effects!!! That’s good to know. Since I’m pregnant, I think I need to be more disciplined about having a good night sleep! It’s too tempting to stay up late because like you mentioned, we do feel like we have too little time in our modern life. I need my beauty sleep!

    • Looks like you’re getting enough beauty sleep Kaho!

      As far as the Melatonin, it’s relatively safe, and it is something that your body produces anyway, but it’s a good idea to know proper dosage and its precautions if you use it on a regular basis.

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. Great post on sleep! Yes, It is very important, that is for sure! Thank you.

  4. Great post Savvy…. I am ALWAYS interested in what research you have to bring! There are many things I am going to change in my sleep patterns because of you!
    I’m passing this on to some of my friends who just do not sleep enough… I have plenty of them. Thanks again x

  5. Oh this was really interesting to read!
    I love your information posts – I always learn something new
    The tip about not using your bed for anything other than sleeping sounds like a good one but here at uni I don’t have anywhere else that is comfortable to sit
    This post is great for me because of the chronic fatigue I suffer from due to my condition so thank you


  6. This is my first time on your blog and I loove it!! As a fellow {new} nurse, I am so happy to see all this health information in your blog! I am def bookmarking this so that I can come back to read some more!! 🙂

  7. Oh this was really interesting to read!
    I love your information posts – I always learn something new 🙂
    The tip about not using your bed for anything other than sleeping sounds like a good one but here at uni I don’t have anywhere else that is comfortable to sit 😦
    This post is great for me because of the chronic fatigue I suffer from due to my condition so thank you 🙂

  8. This is seriously good stuff! I’ve always LOVED sleep. Now I have validation for my love. 🙂 The part about the whales is great – very interesting that their brains sleep in shifts.

  9. I appreciate this theme about sleeps and myths of sleeps! I can fall asleep most of the time once I start reading the book in the bed. I sometimes rely on wine that could make me sleepy when I can’t sleep. But I should drink wine with dinner instead of sipping it right before going to bed.

    Thanks for great posts, as always!

  10. Thanks for this great info. I do get up at 4-5AM every morning to go to the bathroom..but go right back to sleep until my alarm goes off around 6:30. Is that still considered insomnia? I also find that if I go to bed at the same time every night I get the best sleep. Our bodies are just creatures of habit and love that consistency I guess. And fruit before bed or even anytime in the evening is not good either…perks the body up too much. Sweet Dreams!!!

    • As long as you’re getting 7-8 hours of continuous sleep it’s ok, but it takes you brain about 30 minutes to get into the REM sleep, so you may be missing out a bit. Going to the bathroom is a habit (unless it’s due a medical reason) that can be trained. Bladder training is another whole post!

  11. It might be tough, but I’m gonna try this week. Wish me luck sister!

  12. Wow, I’m sooo guilty of depriving myself of sleep. I’m moved to change. Thanks! 🙂

  13. Thanks … some good information that I was not aware of.


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