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Sleep 101: A guide to how missing zzz’s can affect your health

photo of empty bed with messy blankets

Do you feel like your day is hustling and bustling and you’re never getting enough sleep? You’re not alone. Many adults in the U.S. are in the same boat.

Whether it’s being tethered to our cell phones or having the bad habit of falling asleep while binge-watching Netflix, our quality of sleep has steadily declined over the past few decades.

According to a Gallup News poll (2013), most Americans got nearly eight hours of sleep a night (7.9 hours) in 1942. Today, adults are averaging under 7 hours (6.8 hours), a 13% decrease. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that adult get between seven to nine hours of sleep per night. Unfortunately, their reports show at least 35% of adults fall short of reaching this goal.

Why is sleep important?

Short answer: it makes your brain and body work better. Just like your cell phone needs a complete recharge on a regular basis – so does your brain and most of your internal systems.

Studies have shown when you’re sleeping it revitalizes your brain. It helps store memories and improves your retention as well as improve learning
abilities. Sleep also helps give your brain a break so you’re more alert. When well rested, you are able to focus more easily and make better decisions.

Sleep also does the body good. While you catch your Z’s, a physical and chemical process kicks in to refresh your heart and blood vessels. When you go a long time without adequate sleep or think you can function “just fine” when you skip sleep, you’re actually doing harm to yourself. You are making your body more prone to developing chronic illnesses like heart disease and high blood pressure.

Mom and dad laying on bed, staring at sleeping new baby

How does a person get sleep deprived?

For starters, a person becomes sleep deprived when they’re not getting enough sleep on a consistent basis, but what kind of factors cause the lack sleep or sleep issues? New parents can answer that one – babies don’t sleep in normal cycles.

A study posted in The Guardian found that new parents face up to six years of sleep deprivation for every child they have, and sleep hits its lowest around three months after birth.

The study went on to find that mothers lose on average about 40 minutes of sleep a night with a new baby, while dads only lose about 13 minutes of sleep each night in the first three months.

Positive news from the study – there IS an end in sight. It found that about six years after subsequent children, the numbers finally started to go back up. That means sleep deprivation due to building a family doesn’t last forever!

Another factor that can lead to sleep deprivation working nights or rotating shifts. Those who work the night shift or different hours each day tend to have more difficulty getting enough sleep because it throws off the body’s regular circadian schedule.

Other causes of sleep deprivation include voluntary behavior (like having behaviorally induced insufficient sleep syndrome) or medical problems that disturb sleep.

The consequences of sleep deprivation

Lack of sleep and the long-term sleep deprivation have serious consequences to our health. Not only can shaving minutes (or hours) off your sleep habits lead to cloudiness and difficulty in maintaining your mental focus, it can also make you hungry.

That’s right. Lack of sleep causes a hormone reaction in your system that triggers your digestive system to think you need to eat. This sense of cravings and hunger can lead to eating more and potentially obesity. In fact, Harvard School of Public Health has reported 3-5% of obesity in adults may be a result of lack of sleep.

But wait! There’s more. The changes in your mental health, heart health and appetite are just the tip of the iceberg. Here are more things you can expect if you don’t get enough sleep:

  • You could weaken your immune system and invite colds and other viruses to take root. Nobody wants that.
  • You may become more forgetful and have difficulty recalling information. Misplacing your car keys and phone, forgetting appointments, walking out of the store without the one item you went to pick up in the first place, or not recalling important information on the job are all common occurrences
  • You are more likely to experience mood swings. Nobody likes a grouch, and going from emotional highs to lows can not only add stress to you but also those around you.
  • You put yourself at greater risk for car accidents. Simply put – don’t drive drowsy. When your body is deprived of sleep, you can unknowingly slip into a sleep state for a few second causing an accident that injures you and others.
  • You are more likely to fall. Lack of sleep compromises your balance and coordination.
  • You increase your risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke. Heart disease is the #1 killer of both men and women in the United States, and for many the first symptom is a heart attack or death. Reducing this risk alone is a reason to get your seven hours of sleep.
  • You may be killing your sex drive. Studies show that people who don’t get enough sleep often have a lower libido.

Am I suffering from sleep

Okay, so you’re a little tired, but are you REALLY sleep deprived? Can’t taking an extra nap on the weekend repair the damage?

You can’t “catch up on sleep” and sleep deprivation is nothing to play with. A National Institute of Health’s National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NIH-NHLBI) review has found that sleep too little on a regular basis increases your risk of early death. Here are the signs and symptoms you need to watch out for:

  • Excessive sleepiness
  • Yawning
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Delayed body signals and brain function
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts

Sleep deprivation can also cause high blood pressure and an interruption in hormone production.

Man wearing CPAP machine for sleep apnea

Common sleep

Sleep disorders can contribute to sleep deprivation, but the good news is most are treatable. Here’s a list of the common ones:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) – a disorder in which someone stops breathing 
  • Restless leg syndrome (RLS) – a neurological disorder that causes an uncontrollable tingling feeling in the legs
  • Narcolepsy – a disorder that causes someone to fall asleep suddenly and could include loss of muscle function, sleep paralysis
    and hallucinations
  • Insomnia – a disorder making falling asleep or staying asleep difficult
  • Periodic Limb Movement Disorder (PLMD) – involuntary movements of the limbs while sleeping

If any of these disorders sound familiar, speak with your doctor about setting up a sleep study. You can learn more about what to expect during
a sleep study below.

Asian couple in bed peeking out from under the covers

How do I get more sleep?

In order to treat sleep deprivation, you need the opportunity to get more (and better quality) sleep. Duh! Right?

The CDC encourages everyone to form good sleeping habits (also called “sleep hygiene”). In order to do so, create a night time routine that works for you. This is crucial.

By being consistent and going to bed at the same time each night, you can reset your body’s circadian rhythm (sleep cycle). More things you can do to improve your sleep life include:

  • Set the mood. Create a cool, dark sleeping environment with black out curtains and other relaxing elements to help your body and mind slip into sleep.
  • Unplug. Don’t watch TV or catch up on your latest texts, emails, news feeds, and social media posting directly before bed. Give yourself 20-30 minutes to decompress before your head hits the pillow. Remove all technological devices from your bedroom, and don’t go to sleep with the television on.
  • Cut the munchies. Avoid eating large meals, drinking or consuming a lot of caffeine or drinking alcohol right before bed time
  • Exercise. Work on being more physically active during the day. Studies show exercise improves sleep quality. When you get your body moving during the day, your body gets conditioned to wind down for sleep. Just make sure you aren’t doing you exercise directly before your bedtime.

How much sleep should I be getting?

The National Sleep Foundation says the average adult (between the ages of 18-65) should be getting between seven and nine hours of sleep a day. Here’s a look at what each age group should aim for each night:

  • Newborns (0-3 months) – 14 to 17 hours a day
  • Infants (4-11 months) – 12 to 15 hours a day
  • Toddlers (1-2 years old) – 11 to 14 hours a day
  • Preschoolers (3-5 years old) – 10 to 13 hours per day
  • School-aged children (6-13 years old) – nine to 11 hours per day
  • Teenagers (14-17 years old) – eight to 10 hours per day
  • Adults (18-65) – seven to nine hours per day
  • Older Adults (65+) – seven to eight hours per day

Where do I go for help?

If you’re not getting enough sleep and you’ve done everything you can to establish a good sleep routine, speak with your doctor. Ask if you might need a sleep study. You could be suffering from a sleep disorder or health issue like sleep apnea or insomnia.

Vital procedure. Beautiful dark-haired woman lying on an examination table and undergoing electroencephalography while her doctor examining CT results

How a sleep study works

Sleep studies are a great way for your doctor to get the low down on your sleeping habits, especially if you’re having difficulty sleeping or feeling rested.

This non-invasive test monitors your sleep behavior through electrodes placed on your head and body. The electrodes track things like eye movements, oxygen levels, breathing rate, heart rate, body movements and whether or not you snore.

The NMC Sleep Disorders Center offers a comfortable bed in a private room to promote good sleep. You can bring personal items and wear your
own pajamas, and even though there are electrodes attached to your head, there is plenty of room to move around and get comfortable.

If you need to undergo a sleep study, check out Newton Medical Center’s Sleep Disorders Center, which has been accredited by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. We offer a comfortable and quiet atmosphere that is perfect for sleep testing in an overnight or daytime stay. A physician referral is required, so your primary care provider should refer you or you can call the center for a consultation at (316) 281-8200.


The Centers for Disease Control

National Sleep Foundation

Harvard Health

National Institude of Health – National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute

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