Monday
Oct032011

Blessed Sleep

The short answer:  Blame the shortage on Thomas A. Edison, but we need to turn off the lights and get more sleep, 8-9 hours, in the dark.

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Deficiencies

Deficiencies are one irony of modern life.  The Industrial Revolution provides everything money can buy, in fabulous quantities.  Yet we live with debilitating deficiencies—usually undetected—generally unknown to the ancients.  It’s more correct to say insufficiencies, which are less severe than deficiencies.  Deficiencies have near-term consequences; insufficiencies take longer.  Vitamin D deficiency can cause rickets in a relatively short time; an insufficiency of vitamin D requires a longer time to show its effect (osteoporosis, for example).  Chronic insufficiency is a risk factor for the chronic diseases.  Here are ten common insufficiencies (with links to past posts) that harm your health, starting with diet:

  1. Vitamins
  2. Minerals
  3. Fiber
  4. Antioxidants
  5. Exercise
  6. Sunshine
  7. Peace (freedom from excessive stress)
  8. Order (the converse of chaos)
  9. Sleep, the subject of this post
  10. Dark

Blame It On Edison

Every invention of man has innate potential for both good and bad. 

Consider the lightbulb.  In 1910, before electrification of our cities, the average American got 9-10 hours of sleep in the dark—a little more in winter when the nights were long, less in the summer.  Now the day has no logical end.  Modern man, consequently, averages less than 7 hours of sleep year around.  Worse, it’s become a virtue to get too little sleep.  Think of these laudatory phrases:  “Burning the midnight oil,” or “pulling an all-nighter,” (to work through the night).  

There are two other effects of the lightbulb:  First, we’ve lost the seasonal rhythm of sleeping more during the long winter nights.   Second, due to light pollution, true darkness no longer exists for many.  Ever get up in the night and count the status lights on your electronic devices?  Does a streetlight, or neighbor’s porch light, shine into your window all night?  What about the nightlights that teach our young to fear the dark?

Sleep Deficiency

In their book Lights Out authors T.S. Wiley and Bent Formby, PhD, make the argument that modern sleep habits are unhealthy, contributing to these problems:

  • Hormone deficiency, particularly melatonin (more on this below),
  • Depression
  • Hypertension
  • Overweight and type 2 diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
  • Impaired judgment, including risky behavior by teens
  • Dementia

It’s About Melatonin

Briefly, melatonin rules the night and dopamine owns the day.  

Melatonin is a master hormone essential to health and is produced while we sleep, most effectively in the dark.  Scientists are still discovering melatonin’s functions, which include the regulation of circadian (daily) rhythm, sleep, energy balance, reproduction, and body weight.  Melatonin is our most potent antioxidant, plays a key role in immune system health, is protective against addictions, and regulates leptin, the hormone that controls appetite.  (Babies, in the first three months, produce melatonin around the clock, thus seem to have their days and nights mixed.)

We have a third eye, the pineal gland, linked to our retinas.  The nightly fall of darkness stimulates the pineal to produce melatonin.  Production peaks at about 3.5 hours of sleep, which then drives the production of other hormones.  Basically, a healthy balance of hormones requires adequate sleep, 8-9 hours depending on the season, in the dark.  The more light in the bedroom, the lower the production of melatonin.

Melatonin deficiency drives compensating habits that over time ravage our health.  These include addictive habits such as caffeine drinks, smoking, drinking, and the use of drugs; constant snacking, especially of sugary foods; and a reliance on high-calorie processsed foods rich in calories but deficient in nutrients. 

Bottom line:  The growth of unhealthy foods over the last century isn’t just because of billions spent on advertising.  We are vulnerable because the advent of electricity and cheap light has separated us from traditional sleeping patterns.  If we are to eat better, we must sleep better.

Losing Fat

It’s known that too little sleep drives sugary snacking, a cause of overweight.  But there is also a benefit of sleep when losing weight.  A 2010 University of Chicago study of dieters found that those who got the least sleep (5.5 hours) lost more non-fat body tissue (mainly muscle) and those who got the most sleep (8.5 hours) were most effective at reducing excess fat.   A prior post, argued that a diet of whole foods combined with exercise was more effective at losing weight than dieting.  To improve weight loss, get plenty of sleep.

Snoring

Snoring, of which you're usually unaware, disturbs your sleep, but it's also bad for the sleep of your spouse.  (Spouses, out of kindness, may be reluctant to mention a snoring problem.  From a health standpoint, it’s better if the snoring spouse knows, and is reminded.)  Snoring can progress to the condition called sleep apnea, a series of oxygen-deprived awakenings during the night, of which most are unaware.  Remedies for snoring include the following:

  • If you’re overweight, the first step is to achieve a healthy weight.
  • No eating for two hours before bedtime.  (In addition, avoid alcohol, caffeine, or dairy and soy products at dinner.)
  • Sleep on your side—the tongue and jaw relax when sleeping on your back and exaggerate snoring.  One remedy is to tape a tennis ball to the back of your pajamas, forcing you to sleep on your side.  If this is difficult, talk to your doctor about a dental appliance that keeps your jaw in position while sleeping.  If you snore while on your side, you have a more serious condition and should see a specialist.
  • Strengthen your throat muscles.  All aerobic exercise helps, but you also can join a choir (singing strengthens the throat muscles, as does shouting at the kids), learn to play the didgeridoo (an aboriginal Australian instrument which uniquely strengthens throat muscles), or try the exercises noted here
  • If all else fails, a doctor may consider the CPAP breathing device, or perhaps surgery.

Healthy Change:  There’s wisdom in that old saying “Early to bed . . .”.  There are health problems from getting too much sleep, though this is not a big problem in America. 

See this report from the National Sleep Foundation for tips on getting better sleep.

Please comment on your sleep experience.  How much sleep do you need?  Have you experienced health issues related to longterm insufficient sleep?  What was your solution? 

Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.

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Reader Comments (14)

I have a daughter who says she is afraid of the dark. I don't know why. We never used night lights. She wakes up in the middle of the night if a light is not on and screams. She also doesn't go to sleep at night very well. She stays up in her bed for hours after the other children are asleep. Then, she is the first one awake in the morning! I have no idea what to do about it. I think she isn't really afraid of the dark and just wants a light on so she can play, but why would she scream when she wakes up in the dark? For a while, my husband would lay down with her at night until she fell asleep. It never took long and she was like a completely different child. Unfortunately, laying down with her isn't practical. Anyone have any advice on getting her to sleep?

October 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

When I was in my late teens and early twenties I had a terrible time sleeping and consequently always felt exhausted and struggled with depression (which makes you want to sleep all the time. I didn't do this consciously but over time as I got older I have made significant changes to the foods that I eat and I am more consistent with when I eat. I also used to push the limits of staying up late to study or to go out with friends but again as I have gotten older I just listen to my body and if I am tired I go to bed at a reasonable hour but have stopped taking naps as they would often make me go to sleep much later. This would then cause me to be tired as the time that I wake up for work is not negotiable - one of the challenges with the modern world is work schedules that start really early all year round. I find in the spring and summer months waking up at 6 is not nearly as challenging as waking up at 6 in the winter.
Taking vitamin D supplements has also helped a great deal.

October 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSara

For most of my life, I've had a horrible time getting to sleep. It seems that I can always think of something that I need to do when it's time to go to bed. My mom tells me that when I was a baby, she would check my crib to see if I was asleep, and my eyes would always be open. As a young child, I had a bag of activities (coloring, audiobooks, friendship bracelets) to do when I couldn't fall asleep. I had accepted sleeplessness as part of my nature and was until recently able to function on relatively little sleep. From my experience, sleep deprivation creates a vicious cycle of exhaustion and disruption of normal rhythms. My solution has been to set a strict bedtime for myself, and to take epsom salt baths before bedtime which helps me to relax, and slows down my thoughts.
A couple years ago, a professor from Stanford University William Dement spoke to my school about sleep. He introduced the concept of sleep debt, that the sleep we don't get every night accumulates and must be compensated for with hours of extra sleep in the future. You can read more about this here: http://www.stanford.edu/~dement/sleepless.html
My school decided to start one day a week at 9 AM to give us extra time to sleep. I wish it was every day, as on late start days, I feel like I am able to focus on my work much better!

October 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKatherine

My husband has always been a poor sleeper. Recently, however, we discovered he has a corn allergy. After eliminating corn, low and behold, he has started sleeping well--getting deep restful sleep for the first time ever. So for those who have always struggled with sleep, perhaps look at allergies.

I myself, have always loved/craved sleep. Sleep has been a huge priority. But someone needs to tell that to my child who likes to get me up multiple times a night. Sigh.

October 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLady Susan

I love this. Sleep is so important, and so underrated. I need about 8 hours a night, but with a little baby this can be a challenge. I do wonder, since sleep is so crucial, why babies are designed to not sleep well for at least the first few months (my daughter didn't really sleep through the night until 6 months or so), and what effect this has on parents and parenting.

I have read that getting only 6 hours or so a night, for most people, means that you are operating with a brain that is functionally drunk by the time a week has gone by. I will keep this in mind, and try to get more sleep (which really means getting to bed earlier).

October 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGrace

Isn't it crazy how so many people think it's weird to get a lot of sleep? My husband and I both require at least 8 hours of sleep, or our days are not as productive and we're tired most of the day. We go to bed by about 10 most nights. My husband, still in graduate school, will even go to bed extra early to get sleep, and then wake up extra early to do more studying. He learned early on that "all-nighters" don't work for him. He needs sleep in order to function, so he makes it a top priority to get it.

I'm a HUGE advocate of sleep! I read a bunch of sleep books before my son was born. One that I loved was Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. I cannot recommend this book enough! It really opened my eyes to sleep and health. My son is almost a year, and he goes to bed at 5:30. 5:30!! He's up at 6:30 most days, and still takes 2, sometimes 3 (short) naps daily. And he's the happiest kids I've ever seen! When my sister's girls were younger, they went to bed around 6:30 every night. I used to make fun of her for it, but then researched it out. Kids need lots of sleep, and so do adults! I feel so good when I've gotten the "right" amount of sleep at night. I sometimes take a 20-minute power nap during the day while my son naps and it's amazing the energy I feel afterwards. Anyway, thanks for the post!

October 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRikki

This is fascinating. I am a big proponent of sleep. I know that without fail, I do not feel "right" if I get less than about 7 1/2 hours of sleep a night. Something you mentioned also resonates: I do crave sweets when I have a deficiency of sleep. I never understood it. Thanks for shedding some "light".

As previous poster noted, I also read Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child and feel it is the basis for a happy family when you have little ones in the house. Even when the kids get older, the importance of sleep is not to be diminished.

It really is the basics in life that make us feel our best isn't it? Basic and simple foods, plenty of sleep, water, physical activity.

October 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLisa

I love to sleep. Normally, I need 8 hours, but I find that I need more (like 9) when I'm pregnant. I'm grateful that my little boy sleeps through the night. It has been interesting to see the effect of sleep on his day. If he goes to bed late, he wakes up on time but grouchy. I'm grateful for those nap times, because they're nice and quiet, and he usually wakes up very cheerful.

My worst experience with sleep was doing a custodial job from 4-7 a.m. during a semester of college. I was always tired but couldn't go to bed early. I started getting depressed and felt grouchy and groggy all the time. Terrible. I feel for anyone who has a job at "abnormal" hours. It's really great to have a schedule, and I feel my best going to bed by 10:30 and getting up around 6:30-7. (Looks a lot like a missionary schedule!)

Sleep is certainly blessed.

October 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSacha

This explains why I was craving dark chocolate today after being up a lot last night with my daughter. She is 13 months and I am in the process of weaning her in hopes that we can finally sleep through the night. I've read all the sleep books, but never wanted to do the "cry it out" approach, so I've just suffered through over a year of no sleep. Luckily my husband lets me sleep in most days, but I'm sure this interrupted sleep is not good for me.

The part of the post about light was really interesting to me; I hadn't ever read that but it makes total sense. I remember President Hinckley counseling us to go to bed early and wake early.

October 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLindsey

I remember really struggling to get my two little girls (when there were only two) to sleep at 7:30 pm--our scheduled time for them. They fought me with all the energy of an over-tired child. Someone suggested I try putting them to bed an hour earlier--before that super-tired state hit. I was amazed to find they went down so easily at 6:30 and slept through the night until about 7:30 the next morning (neither napped during the day at this point). It was heaven! Of course, it is so much harder to get young ones down that early with older children in the house.

My oldest daughter never liked to sleep (still doesn't). He brain just seemed to go, go, go. As a baby, we used a music cd to calm her--not a nice lullaby one, but a Mannheim Steamroller CD that had a consistent rhythm, but was kind of upbeat. For some reason, the music gave her mind somewhere to go, and the consistent rhythm was soothing and calming to her. For well over a year, she would only go to sleep if that CD was playing. It went with us on trips, was played for daytime naps and bedtime. I'm sure there had to be a better way, but it might be something for someone to try when all else fails.

After reading this post, I'm ready to go buy a new window treatment to block out more light.

October 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKonnie

I have always had problems falling asleep, ever since I was a kid. In fact, some of my earliest memories involve me, lying in bed, trying to sleep. To make matters worse, I really need 8 hours of sleep to function well (7 are fine during the summer months). Before I found melatonin tablets that work for me (the normal ones don't work, and I refuse to take sleeping pills) I quite often lay in bed crying from frustration and tiredness at 3/4 a.m. I have read all the ommon sleep tips saying get up and do something calming if you're not asleep after 20 minutes; are they kidding?!!? I have never fallen asleep that fast! I have found that routine is a good aide, as is no screen time right before bed (the blue light again), a nice cool, dark and quiet room (try getting that during Arctic summers without an AC!) and at least 30 minutes of excersize during the day. Right now my routine is a cup of hot cocoa or chamomile tea and an oatcake with a candle as the only light source, often accompanied by an audio book read by someone with a soothing voice, followed by tensing and relaxing the whole body in the dark (particularly the neck and shoulder area) and sleep like breathing (people often think I'm asleep long before I am because I often try to trick myself into sleeping by breathing as if I was actually sleeping, does that make sense?). Another thing I have noticed it that the time I wake up, or rather when in the sleep cycle I wake up makes a huge difference for my energy levels during the day no matter how much or little I have slept, testing different wake up times (in both directions) might do the trick if you wake up tired when the alarm clock rings, in spite of having had a good nights sleep.

Now I'm inspired to invest in a new light blocing window treatment, because I'm sure it will help, at least a bit, after all, I do normally sleep with an eye mask to block out the minimal light that comes in through the ones I have.

October 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMims

I do best with 8 hours of sleep, uninterrupted is best. As I've aged I've become more sensitive to light and that will either keep me up or wake me up. I've been known to prop books over clocks on vcr's and other appliances so I can go to sleep. I taped a piece of card stock over the light on my last alarm clock for that same reason. To see the time I lifted the card stock, otherwise the light was hidden. Now I use a travel alarm where the clock only lights when I push a button. I've noticed the sleep cycles I follow with the seasons. Spring is the worst time for me because our bedroom is in the east. I have to go to bed as early as possible because I'll be up and about between 6 or 7 am just because the sun is too bright. Morning isn't quite so early in the summer which is good because when the sun sets at 10 PM it's nice to be able to sleep until 8 AM.

December 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnn

Oh, and my coping skill when our children were young was letting them sleep with us. I know that isn't popular, but it worked for us. Nursing babies started in their own bed, but when they needed to eat I pulled them into bed and we had a very pleasant night. Our kids were allowed to come to us in the night as needed, often not even waking us up as they crawled in. All of them were sleeping in their own beds all the time before they started kindergarten. I know it doesn't work for all families, but it did for us. Now my coping skill is going to bed and having the teenagers report in as they return home.

December 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnn

I like to see a bit more technical article like this. Most suggestions are very vague and these are specific. Thanks for some real advice.

May 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle Gordon

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