Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Another Reason for a Good Night Sleep

Sunday's Washington Post (10-09-2005) carried another article about the importance of a good night's sleep, "Scientists Finding Out What Losing Sleep Does to a Body" with data from a new study that associates a higher BMI and higher risk of a number of health problems with too little sleep.

Beyond leaving people bleary-eyed, clutching a Starbucks cup and dozing off at afternoon meetings, failing to get enough sleep or sleeping at odd hours heightens the risk for a variety of major illnesses, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity, recent studies indicate.

The article reviews a recent large study of nearly 10,000 people, age 32-49, that found that those who sleep less than seven hours a night were significantly more likely to be obese. This study follows on the heels of a number of other studies that have found similar associations, such as the large Harvard run Nurses Health Study that has correlated not only obesity with too little sleep, but also an increased risk of colon cancer, breast cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

Other research groups scattered around the country have subsequently found clues that might explain the associations, indications that sleep disruption affects crucial hormones and proteins that play roles in these diseases.

The Harvard Nurses Study (mentioned above) is one of the largest and longest studies available to look at a large number of people and lifestyle factors on health and well-being. "The strongest evidence out there right now is for the risk of overall mortality, but we also see the association for a number of specific causes," said Sanjay R. Patel of Harvard Medical School, who led one of the studies, involving more than 82,000 nurses, that found an increased risk of death among those who slept less than six hours a night. "Now we're starting to get insights into what's happening in the body when you don't get enough sleep."

So, what is happening when we don't get enough sleep?

To start with, when you're in a sleep deficit, your body is in an "alert-type mode" sensing stress or danger. This in turn leads to increased levels of stress hormones, which leads to an increase in blood pressure - which is a major risk factor for heart attacks and stroke. But, the potential damage doesn't stop there - the body also experiences an increase in low-grade inflammation with lack of sleep.

"Based on our findings, we believe that if you lose sleep that your body needs, then you produce these inflammatory markers that on a chronic basis can create low-grade inflammation and predispose you to cardiovascular events and a shorter life span," said Alexandros N. Vgontzas of Pennsylvania State University, who recently presented data at a scientific meeting indicating that naps can help counter harmful effects of sleep loss.

Not everyone agrees to the apparent detrimental associations found in research and attributed to lack of sleep. "There are Chicken Little people running around saying that the sky is falling because people are not sleeping enough," said Daniel F. Kripke of the University of California at San Diego. "But everyone knows that people are getting healthier. Life expectancy has been increasing, and people are healthier today than they were generations ago."

Wishful thinking if you ask me.

Life expectancy, while slowly creeping up by a few weeks or months over the years, has been stagnent for the most part for the last two decades. Our world ranking for life expectancy has been tanking - we're now ranked 48th in the world for longevity! This after our glory-days of being one of the longest lived nations for years. There are now 47 other countries that, on average, live longer than we do.

So far as "health" - for women, only two countries fare worse than we do in the United States for years lived in ill-health before death - Mexico and Poland; and for men the years in ill-health in the US are only worse compared to Hungry, Mexico, Portugal, Turkey, Canada, and the Czech Republic. (Data from Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development - OECD)

So, exactly how are we healthier? Ahhh, we can "treat" and "manage" problems longer, but that is surely not a sign of better health.

Health is just that - being healthy...not managing and treating ill-health and thinking you feel OK.

But I digress. This is about a good night's sleep!

Sleep is critical to our well-being. We need adequate sleep to allow the body time to repair, rebuild and regenerate. So, don't short-change your body of the time it needs to sleep....sleeping well may just give you a lot more nights to enjoy that sleep and be in good health too!

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