Big Snooze: Sleep Disturbances May Be Stealing Your Health

Romina Ryals
April 17, 2017
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If getting enough sleep is a lofty goal – rather than your reality – listen up. The long-term impact of sleep disturbances on our health may cost us more than dark circles under our eyes.

According to a 2013 Gallup poll, 40% of Americans get six hours sleep or less per night. Sound familiar? Compare this to 1942, when American adults slept on average seven hours or more per night. Today, 56% of Americans report they get the sleep they need, but 43% report they would feel better with more sleep. And it’s probably no surprise that women report symptoms of insomnia more frequently than men.

Cumulative Impact of Sleep Disturbances

sleep disturbances

Legitimate links exist to sleep disturbances and a variety of health implications.

Sleep disturbances are linked to a variety of health implications. Mild sleep deprivation elicits dark circles under our eyes or skin dullness, a depressed immune system, cognitive impairment and stress. More significant loss of sleep can lead to exacerbating depression, anxiety, and with weight gain. Long-term, we see links to serious, live-threatening diseases, including stroke, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.

Sleep disturbances also relate to rising rates of type 2 diabetes and obesity. Studies related to sleep deprivation have shown a decrease in insulin sensitivity in as little as one 24-hour period.

Multiple large studies of middle-aged and elderly subjects who report shorter sleep patterns are at a higher risk of having impaired glucose tolerance and twice as likely to be  diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. The risk may be even higher for women versus men.

Optimal Timing for Optimal Health

Sleeping too little or too much can have adverse effects. Experts recommend adults sleep seven to nine hours a night for optimal health.

People who sleep more than nine hours a night have been reported to weigh an average of nine pounds more, especially in those with a genetic predisposition for obesity. Those sleeping less than seven hours a night weighed an average of four pounds more. In addition, night shift workers are at a greater risk for long-term health effects such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

A 2013 Johns Hopkins University study  indicated sleep disturbances might accelerate progression to Alzheimer’s-related dementia by increasing beta-amyloid plaques in the brain that are often seen in people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.

The Sleep & Insulin Connection

sleep disturbances

Sleep deprivation will wreak havoc on your health.

Partial sleep deprivation has been shown to increase insulin resistance in otherwise healthy people. One study showed sleep deprivation of five hours a night for one week reduced insulin sensitivity in healthy men. A decrease in insulin secretion and an increase in cortisol levels may be to blame.

To fully appreciate the impact, it’s helpful to understand the role of insulin. When we digest food for energy, the carbohydrates break down into glucose and enter the bloodstream. Insulin then circulates glucose in the bloodstream and allows the glucose to enter the cells for energy.

Insulin resistance is a state in which the cells of the body do not respond to insulin, causing the level of glucose in the blood to remain high and the body to require higher levels of insulin to move glucose into the cells. If this state persists over time, it leads to pre-diabetes or diabetes.

Hormonal Imbalances

In one study of healthy adults, sleeping only four hours a night for a total of six nights limited their ability to tolerate glucose by 40%.

That decrease was similar to that of adults at risk for developing diabetes who often cannot tolerate glucose due to inadequate secretion of insulin.  Those healthy subjects were fed a breakfast high in carbohydrates following their sleep deprivation, and were less able to process the glucose from their meal. While the exact causation is still unclear, it may be due to a hormonal imbalance that occurs from inadequate sleep.

Sleep Disturbances & Weight

Short sleep has been associated with a decrease in weight loss in overweight people who were on diets. The exact mechanism is not clear. It’s possible sleep deprivation may impact appetite that, in turn, can influence food intake. One study shows subjects deprived of sleep chose foods that are higher in fat and carbohydrates and consume 20% more calories.

Researchers speculate that an increase in hunger and a decrease in satiety cues in sleep-deprived individuals may contribute to an increase in food intake and subsequently weight gain.

Catch Those ZZZs

So what’s a person to do if restless nights are the norm? The Better Sleep Council and the Mayo Clinic offer these tips for a better night’s sleep:

  1. Make sleep a priority by keeping consistent bedtime and wakeup schedules, even on the weekend.
  2. Create a bedtime routine by turning off electronics and reading a book, listening to soothing music or taking a warm bath or shower.
  3. Create a room that is dark, quiet, cool and comfortable.
  4. Keep work materials, computers and televisions out of the bedroom.
  5. Exercise regularly, but make sure you complete your workout at least 2 hours before bedtime.
  6. Avoid eating, alcohol, nicotine and caffeine within an hour or two of bedtime.
  7. Limit daytime napping to no more than 10 to 30 minutes, max.
  8. Manage stress. Get organized, set priorities and delegate tasks. Take a break when you need one. Before bed, jot down what’s on your mind and put it aside for the next day.

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