When we get busy, sleep is often the first thing to go. How many times have you pulled an all-nighter or woken up before sunrise to get a jump start on a project? While an occasional sleepless night probably won’t cause much damage in the long run, chronic sleep deprivation can wreak havoc on your health.
“Over time, you start to run a cumulative sleep deficit, and that deficit has some consequences,” says John Cronin, MD, medical director of Scripps Clinic Viterbi Family Sleep Center and Scripps Clinic pulmonologist.
Learn how poor sleep can affect your health and safety — and discover four simple ways to sleep better.
Although circadian rhythm and genetics play a role in how much sleep you need, most people need between six and eight hours of sleep each night — the sweet spot varies from person to person.
“There’s a whole cascade of things sleep affects,” Dr. Cronin says. Research shows:
- Mood, memory, coordination, reaction times, productivity and judgement can all be adversely affected by lack of sleep. There’s even evidence that sleep deprivation correlates with increased risk taking.
- Inadequate sleep can weaken the immune system, and has been linked to depression, asthma, arthritis, heartburn and chronic pain.
- Poor sleep has been linked to neurological disorders and dementia, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
- Studies have shown the death rate in those who sleep for more than 9 hours a night is higher than those who sleep 6.5 hours or less.
- The likelihood of causing a car accident while sleep deprived is about that of driving at or above the legal blood alcohol limit of 0.08 percent.
There are a few things you can do to help yourself fall asleep, stay asleep and improve your quality of sleep overall. However, experts caution that sleeping pills shouldn’t be one of them — research has shown that the risk of death for regular users of sleeping pills is more than four times higher than for nonusers.
Instead, Dr. Cronin offers the following four tips:
- Limit electronics usage 30–60 minutes before bed. The light emitted by phones and other devices can inhibit melatonin production.
- Keep your sleep environment clean, comfortable and quiet.
- Maintain a regular wake-up time, even on the weekends. Dr. Cronin calls wake-up time the “neurologic anchor” of your sleep cycle.
- Limit caffeine, tobacco and other stimulants after noon. Limit alcohol, too. Although it can help you fall asleep, alcohol may also disrupt the remainder of the night’s sleep.
If you can’t sleep, you’re not alone. Many people have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep:
- According to the National Institutes of Health, 60 million Americans annually experience sleep disorders.
- The US Department of Health and Human Services says one in four women experience insomnia, and women are more likely than men to have trouble sleeping due to hormonal changes.
- The National Institute on Aging found that insomnia is the most common sleep problem in people over 60.
- The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke reports that on average, people dream for two hours a night, although they might not remember what about.