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3 Ways Lack of Sleep is Messing Up Your Health

By Tara Weng

3 Ways Lack of Sleep Can Mess Up Your Health-woman with insomniaThe National Sleep Foundation’s Sleep Awareness Week™ is kicking off as Americans head toward losing a much-needed hour of sleep because of Daylight Saving Time. If you’re a night owl, find yourself having to stay up until all hours of the night just to catch up on your busy lifestyle, or simply can’t sleep due to a racing mind or suffer from a sleep disorder, it’s time to get help.

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People who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, depression and obesity, as well as from cancer, increased mortality and reduced quality of life and productivity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Here are 3 ways sleep deprivation can harm your overall health and some tips on how to get more shut-eye from Dr. Michael Breus, a psychologist and sleep disorders specialist.

1. It impacts your cardiovascular health.

A good night’s sleep has a positive effect on your blood pressure, meaning for most of us it goes down at night. If your hours of sleep are interrupted or shortened, your blood pressure may never fall low enough. “When this happens your body works harder, resulting in an increase of cardiac events, EKG abnormalities, and even glucose regulation,” explains Dr. Breus.

2. It can increase your chances of becoming diabetic.

Studies suggest that sleep loss may play a role in the increased prevalence of diabetes and/or obesity. There are several reasons why this might happen: Sleep deprived people are just too tired to exercise and can’t burn off the calories during the day. And when you’re awake longer, that’s more time to eat healthy, right? Not likely! Your lack of sleep throws off the balance of appetite-controlling hormones. “Your body is in survival mode when sleep deprived and ghrelin, the hormone which tells you to eat more, is compromised and leptin, which tells your body it’s satiated, is reduced.”

Sleep deprivation is also a factor in insulin resistance or sensitivity which raises red flags about the long-term effects of prolonged sleep loss and chronic conditions like diabetes. Dr. Breus emphasizes the fact that even short-term sleep loss (being awake for approximately 36 hours) can put your body into a prediabetic state (blood glucose levels are higher than normal).

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3 Ways Lack of Sleep Can Mess Up Your Health-woman tired while driving3. It slows down your response time.

It’s not surprising that when you’re bone tired it affects your cognitive/motor function. Research has indicated that sleep deprivation or chronic fatigue is equivalent to the effects of alcohol — especially when behind the wheel. This means drowsy driving teeters closely to drunk driving.

“It’s clear that drowsy driving contributes greatly to slowed response time, reaction time and your physical ability to operate a vehicle,” says Dr. Breus. With this in mind, Dr. Breus has some tips on how to achieve a solid night’s sleep (The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7-9 hours a night for people 18 and older).

  • Stick to the same schedule. Dr. Breus explains that this will help your body ‘know’ when to go to bed and when to wake up (setting your internal biological clock). It’s particularly important to stay as close to schedule as possible on the weekends to avoid a ‘sleep hangover.’
  • Ways Lack of Sleep Can Mess Up Your Health-it's important to get sunlightTry and get some sunlight every morning. It’s another way to signal your body that you’re awake (think of that sliver of sunlight gleaming through your shades every morning). Research has found that people who are deprived of light for long periods of time actually experience striking changes in their sleep — so while it might seem counterintuitive, get some light in your life.
  • Keep the caffeine to the daylight hours. Dr. Breus recommends that most people should nix the caffeine after 2 p.m. In the afternoon the body actually hangs on to caffeine for hours after it’s ingested (roughly six hours to get rid of half of what you’ve ingested.) They way it works is that caffeine blocks the action of hormones in our brains which trigger sleepiness. It has also been known to cause insomnia, so watch your intake!
  • Watch what you eat. Acid reflux is also a classic sleep blocker, keeping its sufferers awake with coughing and sometimes choking. These foods should be avoided as a late night snack or meal: citrus fruits, chocolate, tomato-based foods and fried and fatty foods.

If you try these suggestions and still have trouble sleeping, check out the latest research, information and treatment options by going to The National Sleep Foundation’s website. Always talk to your physician if you experience symptoms which seem urgent or are unmanageable. If you’re diagnosed with a sleep disorder like insomnia or sleep apnea, here’s a guide to how you can get help.

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Tara Weng is formerly a medical/features producer at the NBC television affiliate in Boston, MA, and National Editor of Health/Parenting channel at GalTime.com.

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