By Lisa Sussman, Psy.D.Health Psychologist
While celebrating the New Year, we often think about what we want in the upcoming year ahead. We set goals for better health and fitness, increased satisfaction and happiness, improved relationships and job performance, and so forth. What if we could focus on one thing to change, knowing that if we work on this one thing, we could create sweeping benefits across all of these desired areas of change? I am referring to the quantity and quality of sleep. Yes, sleep! The very thing we normally cut short because we have other more important things to do with our time, don’t think much about during the day, or prepare ourselves for as evening sets in. Society has pretty much ignored sleep until recently as something that is important for us to focus on and understand better.
The Center for Disease Control reports that insufficient sleep is a health epidemic. Over 70 million Americans have difficulty getting the sleep they require. (The exact number of hours a person needs can vary individually, but generally is between 7-9 hours, with under 5 hours of sleep per night on average seriously increasing their risk level for illness and even mortality). Chronic insomnia affects 10-15% of adults at any given time, is more common in women and people who do shift work, and becomes more frequent with age. Chronic sleep deprivation is linked to weight gain, motor vehicle accidents, decreased quality of life, and impaired performance, including poor decision making and interference with learning. It is also a risk factor for mood and anxiety disorders, stroke, dementia, osteoporosis, and heart disease. One tidbit about insufficient sleep that I find fascinating is that, when we haven’t slept well, we tend to rate our daytime functioning and performance as normal, even though objective testing shows a decrease in processing speed, reaction time, and problem solving. We don’t even realize that we are functioning sub-par! But we are. Even just one night of getting 1-2 hours shy of our normal sleep affects our reaction time, our mood and frustration tolerance, and the way we process information.
We are learning more and more about the purposes of sleep and why we need to make a good night sleep a top priority. Each stage of sleep does different things for us. For instance, when we are in slow wave, deep sleep, our bodies can repair and grow, and growth hormones are released. When we are in REM sleep, we are mentally restored and information gets consolidated and organized so we can better retrieve it later. Our bodies require that we go through 5 cycles (about 90 minutes each) of sleep to get these full benefits. Sometimes the medications that we take, the food that we eat and drink, our exposures to toxins or excess stimulating content or screen time, our activity levels, how we manage stress, and the environments of our sleep space impact our sleep quality and disturb our sleep cycle. We can even wake up from what we thought was a good quantity of sleep, and still feel physically tired and mentally sluggish.
Imagine a world where we all value and protect our sleep, making it a priority, and modeling it for our children. If institutions altered their cultures and policies to reflect our need for a full night’s sleep, we would find it easier to carve out these 7-8 hours and not feel guilty or that we wouldn’t get our to-do list checked off. We would know that when we got the right amount and quality of sleep consistently, we would be more effective and efficient at our jobs (or school) and more patient, tolerant and kind with others, cultivating stronger bonds. We would be sick less often, miss less work and school, and healthcare costs would decrease. We would be happier and more satisfied with our lives and our relationships and our level of functioning. Sleep can do all that and more! We can all play a role in making our sleep a priority in 2018. It starts with shifting our mindset around sleep, which then will help us make the behavior and lifestyle changes we need to implement to give us the chance to get the best quality and amount of sleep that is optimal.
The Integrative Health & Medicine program offers Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia. Please call me at our clinic at the Hackensack Meridian Health Village in Jackson at 732-994-7855 to find out more.