America is a sleep-deprived nation. Sleep problems affect between 50 and 70 million Americans at any given time and it has consequences. It adds to the stress you already have, while making you tired, grumpy and unable to perform routine tasks. Inadequate sleep truly limits your ability to enjoy a high quality of life. And a lack of sleep doesn’t just make you feel tired, it can actually have physiological impacts that weaken your immune system and make you more prone to illness and chronic disease.
There’s no question that lack of sleep impacts your daily life in a negative way. It makes you feel anxious, sluggish, and unproductive at work, while eliminating your ability to focus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also reports that one in 24 adults fall asleep while driving.
But the impact of insufficient sleep goes far beyond what we feel every day and the immediate danger it poses. When you don’t get enough sleep, your immune system becomes taxed, making you weaker in fighting off infections. It simply doesn’t have the energy to attack intruders and effectively kill them. Doctors aren’t exactly sure why at this point, but it may be because when you don’t get enough sleep your immune system is activated in other ways.
Research shows an inflammatory response is triggered when a person doesn’t get enough sleep. This is dangerous because inflammation is a contributing factor in high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and a number of dangerous cardiovascular conditions. This weakens the immune system by putting it to work and essentially placing it in overdrive. After all, inflammation is an immune response, meaning the immune system’s abilities are limited if it has to take care of other problems. This is extremely problematic if inflammation is chronic. Chronic inflammation is a telltale sign of type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. This is precisely why recent research has linked these two conditions to inadequate sleep.
The longer a person goes without getting enough sleep, the more at risk they become for chronic diseases. Inflammation makes it more difficult for blood to travel through the body, overworking the heart and potentially causing significant harm.
So what can you do? Start by turning off your smartphone and television. I’d recommend against checking e-mail once you’re home from work and utilizing your smartphone’s “do not disturb” function. I typically make myself inaccessible via telephone and text about two hours before I go to sleep. It’s also recommended you don’t watch television in bed or at least an hour before, because the bright lights stimulate your brain and make it very difficult to fall asleep.
I also recommend taking a short 20-30 minute nap during the day. This is quite helpful and is a great way to make up missed sleep. But don’t nap for too long or you’ll mess with your evening sleep. If your circadian rhythm allows for about seven hours of sleep per 24 hours, you’re hitting the target!
Evans, M., “How Do You Know If You’re a Normal Sleeper—What Happens if You’re Not?” Globe and Mail web site, March 24, 2014; http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/health-advisor/how-do-you-know-if-youre-a-normal-sleeper/article17648036/, last accessed March 26, 2014.
Cohen, E., “Think Sleep Deprivation Won’t Affect Your Immune System? Think Again,” Everyday Health web site, February 13, 2014; http://www.everydayhealth.com/columns/eric-cohen-breathe-well-sleep-well/think-sleep-deprivation-wont-affect-your-immune-system-think-again/, last accessed March 26, 2014.
Mullington, J., “Sleep Loss and Inflammation,” National Institutes of Health web site, January 18, 2013; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3548567/, last accessed March 26, 2014.