Sleep should be thought of as an important “nutrient” for your health… one that is just as important as any vitamin, mineral or food component that you could think of.
“But wait a minute,” you might say, “Sleep is really just a colossal waste of productive time. Nobody ever died from not sleeping.”
Ah… but if you only knew the truth.
Physiologically speaking, sleep is likely one of the most important phases of your day. A myriad of vital biological functions happen when you sleep. More importantly, these very same crucial cellular activities don’t happen when you don’t get proper sleep. How should we define “proper” sleep? More on that later…
Although complete scientific understanding about sleep continues to elude us, here are the facts that are known. As sleep quality and quantity decline…
- levels of growth hormone decline,
- levels of the adrenal hormone cortisol, the hormone of stress, rise,
- insulin resistance gets worse, as evidenced by elevated secretion of insulin, and
- the percentage of natural killer cells in peripheral blood is lowered.
Let’s explore the possible negative ramifications of each of these biochemical phenomena.
Decline In Growth Hormone Levels
Growth hormone is certainly in the media often these days, especially if you can’t sleep and are up at night listening to infomercials on radio or television. Everything you hear on that infomercial likely applies to you… lack of energy, low resistance to infections, poor healing capability, declined organ function, poor muscular performance, etc.
The funny thing is (or maybe not so funny) that none of those products that you can buy over-the-counter actually give you growth hormone. What they offer you are known as “growth hormone secretagogues” which are supposed to make your body make more growth hormone.
All of the studies that are cited during their sales pitch are in fact studies using actual human growth hormone, available through injection and only with a doctor’s prescription. I have not seen a shred of scientific evidence to support that any of these overpriced products will increase growth hormone levels.
Now, I’m not saying that your growth hormone levels aren’t important… they are. Decreased human growth hormone levels are clearly associated with many of the diseases and inconveniences that we normally associate with aging. However, one proper way to ensure healthy levels is to be asleep when you are supposed to be asleep!
Elevated Cortisol Levels
Cortisol is the hormone of stress that is responsible for many of the negative ramifications that we endure when exposed to life events or circumstances that we perceive as “bad.” Depression, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, dampened immune function, irritability, weight gain and hormonal imbalances all result from this, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
There are so many other habits that we have that already stress the adrenals… caffeine and sugar consumption, lack of exercise, the mental strain of living in our “advanced” society… sleep is the time that our bodies are supposed to regenerate and repair. When you miss that your body continues the damaging cycle, which leads to worsening of all of the signs of stress.
Your body’s ability to efficiently handle sugar is a key to optimal health. When it lacks that ability the body responds by over-production of insulin, which, in turn, begins the cascade of events that leads to many other chronic diseases, including heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, cancer and diabetes. Studies have shown this to be true.
In one such study of more than 70,000 women, those who slept 5 hours or less a night were 34% more likely to develop diabetes symptoms that those that slept 7 or 8 hours a night. Another study showed that healthy adults who averaged 5.2 hours a night for 8 consecutive nights secreted 50% more insulin than their counterparts that got 8 hours of sleep.
If I were to pinpoint one biological dysfunction that is likely associated with the most chronic disease, insulin resistance would be the one. The link with proper sleep is an excellent illustration of how complicated and multi-factorial this health challenge is. Certainly, taking some extra chromium isn’t the answer.
Decreased Natural Killer Cells
Natural killer cells are a very important part of the immune system that are responsible for helping protect against viruses and cancerous cells, among others. Having less of them makes us more susceptible to certain invaders. No wonder we have an epidemic amount of cancer and viral infections these days.
I will also draw the link between this phenomenon and the proliferation of “auto-immune” diseases over the past 50 years… there is a viral component to these diseases. The likely reason why the body turns against itself (mediated by the immune system) is because it is trying to “get at” a virus and does damage to healthy components as a result.
So here we are, 35 years after the declared “war on cancer” in this country, and things are getting worse, not better. Maybe our medical scientists would be better served sleeping on the problem for a while instead of keeping late hours in the laboratory.
This concept is also one that seems to escape us, but if we would only use a little common sense we’d find the simple truth.
When the sun goes down our pineal glands begin to produce certain hormones, including melatonin, which are the signals for our body to begin a certain process… we become sleepy. This happens because of decreased exposure to light. What we are meant to do at that time is begin to settle down, eventually falling asleep, at which time our bodies regenerate and repair, readying ourselves for the next day.
But what do we do when the sun goes down? We turn the lights on and stay up!! And this seemingly simple practice may actually be as responsible for many of our diseases as anything else that we do.
It is most important for us to be asleep between the hours of 10pm and 2am… this is the time that many of the reparative and restorative functions happen, especially in regards to the liver.
The quality of sleep is also an issue… if you are not dreaming then you are likely not getting into the rapid eye movement sleep that appears to be needed for the processing and storage of that day’s events.
The Newest Culprit; Sleep Apnea!
This is an issue that should not be ignored. Sleep apnea happens because of a narrowing of the airways while sleeping. In turn, the body becomes oxygen-deprived.
This can lead to snoring, periods of not breathing and frequent, sudden arousals out for sleep. And interestingly enough, sleeping pills (over-the-counter or prescription) have been shown to worsen the periods of pauses while sleeping. The biggest risk factor for this is excess body weight.
Often times people that have sleep apnea are not consciously aware of it and will deny it if asked. The only way to know for sure is to be observed while you are sleeping. This can happen officially through a sleep study or unofficially by asking your sleep partner. You can also use a slick computer program to monitor the noise you make, and video yourself, while you sleep. You may be very surprised to see yourself become roused (while you are supposedly asleep) numerous times throughout the night. And then you wonder why you are tired during the day!
Lastly, you can imagine how stressful it is to the body to literally go through periods of not breathing. In many people this fact is one of the reason why the adrenals are kicking out too much cortisol – and why some people will awake in the morning with elevated blood pressure and blood sugar.
So What is the Answer?
Well, I know for sure that prescription medicines do not really help with consistent insomnia. Drugs like Ambien are commonly prescribed for insomnia, especially in the elderly. I see people that take these medicines every night to help with sleep. Here’s a news bulletin for those of you who fit that bill…
“Ambien (zolpidem tartrate) is indicated for the short-term treatment of insomnia characterized by difficulties with sleep initiation. Ambien has been shown to decrease sleep latency for up to 35 days in controlled clinical studies.” This is a direct quote from the package insert for Ambien. How does that information jive with how your doctor may have you taking these medicines?
The problem is that you do not get the restorative, regenerative kind of sleep from those medicines. You get more of a numbing sleep… and many people report to me that even though they may sleep through the night with the help of those medicines, they do not wake up feeling refreshed.
Some Make-Sense Tips
- Try to get to bed earlier and do it regularly. Your system cries out for living in sync with the cycles of nature. If you are used to going to bed after midnight, slowly change your bedtime to earlier, in 15 minute increments, every week or so.
- Avoid stimulants like caffeine and nicotine, especially before bedtime.
- Avoid alcohol. Even though alcohol is technically a depressant, it does not allow for the proper, restful sleep that you desire. Additionally, alcohol is a diuretic, which may cause awakening at night to urinate.
- Do not eat within 3 hours of going to sleep. Your body does not want to work on digestion when you sleep which distracts it from regeneration and repair.
- Regular exercise during the day results in getting to sleep easier and earlier at night.
- Adopt some relaxing bedtime rituals… a relaxing bath, reading something soothing and spiritual, having a massage, or listening to relaxing music. The idea of “ritual” has been lost in our society. Through some sort of a regular practice, your body will get the signal that it is time to sleep and settle down much easier.
- Use good “sleep hygiene.” That means, use your bed for sleeping… not for watching television, eating or reading. It also means that you should make your bedroom completely dark. Your pineal gland detects light even if your eyes are closed.
- Wear socks. Some studies have shown that cold feet are a common factor that wakes people up a night.
In conclusion, society may teach us that sleep is idle time when nothing is going on, wasted time, in other words. The truth is that while our minds rest, our bodies are very busy seeing to many biological functions. Allowing this process to happen, as nature intended, will make your time awake so much more productive and enjoyable!
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