Healthy Living-The Importance of Sleep

Sleep quantity as well as quality are highly important to health in all areas of your life.  The amount of good, quality sleep you get each night affects your mood, emotions, and overall mental health as well as your immune system and overall physical health.  A recent study by the Harvard Women’s Health Watch found that more people are sleeping less than six hours a night, and 75% of people have sleep difficulties at least a few nights per week.  Also, sleep deprivation is a leading cause of many accidents.

Ever notice that you are grumpy the next day if you do not get enough sleep?  Sleep loss can result in irritability, impatience, inability to concentrate, and moodiness.  Too little sleep can also leave you too tired to do the things you like to do in your free time!  As far as academics are concerned, sleep helps the brain commit new information to memory through a process called memory consolidation.  In studies by the Harvard Women’s Health Watch, people who had slept after learning a task did better on later tests.

Chronic sleep loss can contribute to physical health problems such as weight gain, high blood pressure, and a decrease in the immune system’s power.  This deprivation may cause weight gain by affecting the way our bodies process and store carbohydrates, and by altering levels of hormones that affect our appetite.  In addition, serious sleep disorders have been linked to cardiovascular problems such as hypertension, increased stress hormone levels, and irregular heartbeat.  Sleep deprivation alters immune function, including the activity of the body’s white blood cells.  You may notice that you generally get sick after a week of staying up late and studying for tests- this is due to a lowered immune defense.

Sleep debt contributes to a greater tendency to fall asleep during the daytime. These lapses may cause falls and mistakes such as medical errors, air traffic mishaps, and road accidents.  According to the National Sleep Foundation’s 2005 Sleep in America poll, 60% of adult drivers say they have driven a vehicle while feeling drowsy in the past year, and more than 1/3 have actually fallen asleep at the wheel!  In fact, of those who have nodded off, 13% say they have done so at least once a month.  Four percent admit they have had an accident or near accident because they dozed off or were too tired to drive.  The NSF also found that adults between ages 18-29 are much more likely to drive while drowsy compared to other age groups (71% young adults vs. 52% middle aged vs. 19% older adults).  Making sure you get enough sleep will ensure attentiveness and alertness on the road.

It’s safe to say that sleep is too important to shortchange.  The following tips are given by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine to help students get the most out of their sleep:

Go to bed early
Students should go to bed early enough to have the opportunity for a full night of sleep, which means about seven to eight hours of sleep each night.

Get out of bed
If you have trouble falling asleep, get out of bed and do something relaxing such as reading a book until you feel sleepy.

Stay out of bed
Don’t study, read, watch TV, or talk on the phone in bed. Television is a very engaging medium that tends to keep people up, preventing a full night’s sleep.

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Limit naps
If you take a nap, keep it brief. Nap for less than an hour and before 3 p.m.

Wake up on the weekend
It is best to go to bed and wake up at the same times on the weekend as you do during the school week.  While most college students miss out on a lot of sleep during the week and try to catch up on the weekend, sleeping in later on Saturdays and Sundays will make it very hard for you to wake up for classes on Monday morning.

Avoid caffeine
Avoid caffeine in the afternoon and at night. It stays in your system for hours and can make it hard for you to fall asleep.  If you are prescribed to take ADD/ADHD medication, do so only in the morning, because it can easily interfere with sleep (as it is a stimulant).

Adjust the lights
Dim the lights in the evening and at night so your body knows it will soon be time to sleep. Let in the sunlight in the morning to boost your alertness.  An article in the L.A. Times described how sensors in retinal cells are dedicated to detecting the presence and intensity of light through the use of a light-sensitive molecule called melanopsin.  These sensors, along with the hypothalamus, help regulate your internal biological clock.

Wind down
Take some time to “wind down” before going to bed.  Get away from the computer, turn off the TV and the cell phone, and just relax quietly for 15 minutes.

Eat a little
Never eat a large meal right before bedtime. Enjoy a healthy snack or light dessert so you don’t go to bed hungry.

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