The Secret To A Good Life: Good Sleep

“O sleep, O gentle sleep, nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee, that thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down, and steep my senses in forgetfulness.”William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616), Henry IV, Part II, Act III, sc. 1

Sleep is not a luxury; it is a necessity. Yet, more than half of all Americans do not get eight hours of sleep each night. Without adequate sleep we expose ourselves to serious health consequences physically, mentally, and emotionally. Good sleep, however, promotes health and wellbeing in ways that may surprise you:

1. Good Sleep Controls Your Waistline

Most of us are familiar with the role of regular exercise and good nutrition in maintaining a healthy body weight. Yet, good sleep is an equally as important factor. During sleep, the body produces and regulates several important hormones related to stimulating hunger, satiety, and energy. Without adequate sleep these hormone levels become imbalanced causing havoc on our waistline. How does that happen?

Ghrelin is a hormone that stimulates the hunger response. Levels of ghrelin are supposed to be at their highest just prior to a meal and at their lowest following a meal. Leptin is a hormone that is designed to signal the brain we are satiated. Insulin is a hormone that regulates blood sugar levels and the use of energy in the body. This is how it works when we get good sleep.

Without adequate sleep, ghrelin, leptin, and insulin levels become imbalanced. The result is a body that is unable to properly navigate and support itself with regard to satiety and energy usage. In other words, we develop powerful food cravings (usually for carbohydrates) that lead to overeating, obesity, and an increased risk for diabetes, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, and heart disease.

2. Good Sleep Makes You Happier

One night of poor sleep—you know you will be a little less resilient to stressful life circumstances the next day. However, chronic sleep deprivation (less than five and a half hours each night) is associated with mood disorders like depression.

Does depression cause the sleep disruption or are poor sleep habits the culprit in depression? It may be the chicken and the egg: We know there is a relationship between the two although the research is still uncertain as to which comes first.

Good mental health depends upon good sleep habits. This is one reason why wellness and health promotion are seeping into mental health care. The trend is towards a whole-person integrative mental health model where conditions are treated holistically. This may include coaching patients to make lifestyle choices that improve mental health while also lowering other health risk factors. Mind and body are not simply connected—they are expressions of the same psychoneurobiological process.

3. Good Sleep Protects Your Heart

Most of us know the risks associated with smoking. Yet, most of us are unaware that a lack of sleep increases the risk of heart disease as much as smoking.

A recent study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, evaluated the risk of chronic diseases for 14,000 people over a 12-year period. Researchers discovered what you might expect: A healthy diet, exercise and moderate alcohol reduced the chance of cardiovascular disease.

However, when these positive health habits were combined with adequate sleep the results improved by up to 22 percent—equal to the benefit of not smoking. When all five habits were combined, the heart protection was even greater. Is it any wonder that a process designed to use about one-third of our life has such a positive health benefit?

4. Good Sleep Helps You Learn

Sleep helps us transform what we have learned during the day into usable knowledge. During sleep, memory is converted into a form that makes it easier to access in the future. Sleep also supports the long-term storage of information.

Getting enough sleep helps protect the cells in the hippocampus—the part of the brain associated with memory. Sleep supports healthy executive function—the part of the brain that navigates our attention, ability to concentration, and helps us with decision-making. Sleep helps us to be productive in life.

Whereas, a lack of sleep impairs learning and memory. Poor sleep (even if we do not consciousness register our lack of sleep as fatigue or sleepiness) negatively influences our cognitive function, attention span, reaction time, and productivity.

5. Good Sleep Controls Pain

Good sleep reduces pain sensitivity. In a recent study, people who increased their sleep by 1.8 hours (to approximately 10 hours in bed) improved their pain tolerance more than those taking 60 mg of codeine in a previous similar study.

Yet, pain is associated with the disruption of sleep—causing a downward spiral for many patients. Pain interrupts sleep, which reduces pain tolerance, which increases the experience of pain, which interrupts sleep further, and the cycle continues.

An integrative mental health approach to can re-set the pattern and create a new, healthier sleep cycle that reduces pain. The use of evidence-based mind body modalities like mindfulness meditation, biofeedback, yoga nidra, guided imagery, hypnotherapy, and sleep hygiene coaching work together to support pain management and improved sleep.

6. Good Sleep Keeps You Alive

A lack of sleep is dangerous. Sleep deprivation is associated with motor vehicle and machinery-related crashes. In fact, driving while tired is as dangerous as driving while intoxicated. In the United States, 100,000 police-reported automobile crashes are caused by driver fatigue every year.

There have been a number of “famous” incidents associated with lack of sleep: The 1986 Chernobyl disaster; the Exxon Valdez oil spill; and the Challenger Shuttle explosion. Poor sleep is a major public health issue.

Yet, poor sleep is also a very personal health issue. People who chronically sleep less than five hours each night are 15% more likely to die prematurely.

Are you Getting Enough Sleep?

The Epworth Sleepiness Scale is a questionnaire designed to help determine if you are getting adequate sleep. Dr. M.W. Johns, who generously permits its use free of charge, developed it. Try it yourself below:

For each scenario, select how likely you are to doze off on a scale of 0 to 3:

Would never doze – 0

Slight chance of dozing – 1

Moderate chance of dozing – 2

High chance of dozing – 3


◦     Sitting and reading     ___

◦     Watching TV     ___

◦     Sitting, inactive in a public place (e.g. a theatre or a meeting)     ___

◦     As a passenger in a car for an hour without a break     ___

◦     Lying down to rest in the afternoon when circumstances permit     ___

◦     Sitting and talking to someone     ___

◦     Sitting quietly after a lunch without alcohol     ___

◦     In a car, while stopped for a few minutes in the traffic     ___

Total:     ___

What was your score? If you scored 10 or above it is recommended you visit your healthcare provider for further assessment. Moderate to high scores could indicate sleep apnea—a very common and treatable condition—or even narcolepsy. A score of 9 or below is considered within the normal range, although you may still wish to improve your sleep habits to improve your overall health and wellbeing.

Tips for Getting Good Sleep

Establish a calming down ritual for yourself just like you have for your kids. This will signal your body it’s time for sleep.

Stop eating and drinking 2-3 hours before bedtime.

Sleep in a completely dark room.

Use the bedroom for sleep and sex only—no work, television, etc.

If you wake in the middle of the night, do not turn on the light to read or go to the bathroom. In fact, even the small amount of light from a night-light or digital clock can interrupt the melatonin-cortisol hormone balance and disrupt the sleep cycle.

Stop vigorous exercise 3-4 hours before bedtime.

Do calming activities before bedtime: meditation, take a bath, relaxing yoga nidra

Avoid caffeine altogether if possible, or at least after 12:00 PM.

Keep your neck and spine in a neutral position. Use the proper pillow support for your body. If you sleep on your side, your nose should align with the center of your body.

For mild low back pain, try sleeping with a pillow between your knees.

Avoid naps. If you must nap, try keeping it to 23 minutes or less.

Ban blue light in the bedroom and an hour before sleep. The short waves of modern life: television, smart phone, tablet, and digital clock—all interrupt sleep cycles.

Turn down the overall lights in the house 2-3 hours before bedtime.

Avoid alcohol. It may make you sleepy, yet it causes interrupted sleep cycles.

Practice meditation—mindfulness, yoga nidra, or prayer, on a regular basis. Do not use these as methods to fall asleep (the intention is to be awake yet alert with these practices) rather, to help regulate your stress during the day so that you will sleep better at night.

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