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Getting better sleep for good health

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Getting Better Sleep for Good Health

Al Waller: While some folks have been sleeping better with more hours at home during the pandemic, there are a lot of others who find themselves having a tough time getting some of those much need ZZZ’s. To that point, a survey conducted by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found that more than one half of Americans – 56% to be exact – reported problems sleeping since the start of the pandemic, which is now referred to as “COVID-somnia”.

Welcome back to ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth SM. I’m your host, Al Waller. With me is Mihaela Vincze, public health expert of nonprofit Transamerica Institute®, to explore the important role sleep plays in maintaining our health, how to get more quality sleep, health issues that can evolve from a lack of good sleep, and common myths about sleep.

Mihaela, great to have you back!

Mihaela Vincze: Great to be here!

Al Waller: Where would you like to begin sharing with us on this particular topic?

Mihaela Vincze: I actually want to start off by saying whoever came up with the quote “you snooze, you lose” might have actually had it all wrong – sleep is actually so important for our health. It's really crucial for our mental and physical health, in particular – because it might interfere with how we feel and function throughout the day.

Not getting enough quality sleep each night raises the risk of many diseases and disorders – from dementia to heart disease and even stroke.

A sleep expert at the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Marishka Brown, actually explains quality sleep as “refreshing and uninterrupted”. However, Brown reports that that's actually just one component of healthy sleep.

The other factors include having a good sleep schedule and getting an adequate amount of sleep.

Al Waller: Agreed. I think it's safe to say we're aligned in the belief that good sleep is critical to our overall health. That said, it seems like some are increasingly putting it on the back burner, and when you think about it, there's no shortage of reasons when you factor in long work hours, stress, and social media, which can easily keep us up for hours on end. Believe me, I know it's vital that I work on my sleep schedule because if I don't, I'm not at my best – and by the way, I'm pretty much a bear to live with too.

Two-part question, Mihaela: First, what tips have you got for achieving a good sleep schedule? And how long is adequate sleep?

Mihaela Vincze: So, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention actually helped me answer that question. Good sleep schedules deal with habits, also referred to by that fancy term “sleep hygiene”, which you may have heard. These include sleeping at the same time each night and waking up at the same time each morning – and yes, that does include the weekends too.

It also includes keeping our bedrooms quiet and relaxing, as well as avoiding large meals, caffeine, alcohol, any kind of stimulant before bed, as well as getting enough exercise during the day.

It might even be beneficial to make your bed. A survey conducted by the National Sleep Foundation actually found that respondents were 19 % more likely to get a good night's sleep most days if they reported making their bed every day or almost every day.

Now, for your second question…how long is adequate sleep? For most adults, this is 7 to 9 hours but of course, this depends on many factors, like if you're experiencing different health conditions. And keep in mind that our sleep needs change with age and other factors.

Some signs that you haven't had enough sleep, include feeling like you need a lot of caffeine, you're craving junk food, or feeling irritable.

Al Waller: Well, Mihaela, outside of the junk food, looks like you've nailed me on 2 out of 3 – and trust me, I know those three-cups-of-coffee days all too well. But I can't say I was aware of the unhealthy craving side effect. So, perhaps you could expand a little bit more on how sleeping issues can make us crave junk food.

Mihaela Vincze: Yes, I was actually surprised to learn that too. Then I found that a study published in Nature Communications found that sleep deprivation can make us crave high-calorie foods. When doing more research, I stumbled across an article at the National Health Service (NHS) which actually reported that sleep deprived people have reduced levels of the hormone that signals fullness – it's called leptin – and they might have increased levels of ghrelin. That's the hunger-inducing hormone.

Al Waller: That sounds like the appropriate name…ghrelin – but it's incredible, our bodies can really function in some pretty bizarre fashions. I would not have fathomed sleep deprivation leading to potential Twinkie cravings.

What are some of the other benefits derived from sleep?

Mihaela Vincze: There are a few. According to the NHS, a good night's sleep can boost your health in the following ways:

  • Sleep improves mental wellbeing. Sleep debt can lead to mood disorders like anxiety and depression.
  • Sleep boosts immunity. Prolonged sleep deprivation can disrupt your immune system, so you're less able to fend off illness.
  • Sleep wards off type 2 diabetes. Sleep deprivation may affect the way our body processes glucose.
  • Sleep may prevent heart disease. Chronic sleep deprivation may increase blood pressure and chemicals linked with inflammation, which can increase heart disease risk.

Al Waller: All this seems to indicate that sleep really is just as important to our health as a balanced diet and regular exercise. Now, I think I heard you say that sleep can prevent health problems. But how exactly does it repair the body?

Mihaela Vincze: That's a great question. Dr. Maiken Nedergaard, who studies sleep at the University of Rochester – she and her colleagues found that sleep actually helps filter the brain, draining out toxins. Even our blood vessels and immune systems use sleep as a time for repair.

Al Waller: Well, I think you provided some added incentives here for all of us to get more sleep.

On another front, most of us have experienced trouble sleeping at one point or another, like last night for me – you know those feelings – thoughts wandering and distracting us endlessly, when all we really want to do is just simply fall asleep, right?

What can individuals do to fall asleep quicker?

Mihaela Vincze: You bring up a really good point because especially with the uncertainties of the pandemic lots of people might be really experiencing some insomnia and trouble going to sleep.

According to the Sleep Foundation, here are some tips to help you fall asleep a little quicker.

First and foremost, make sure to establish a relaxing bedtime routine. What this means for you is specific to what you like, but some people do enjoy gentle stretching, listening to calming music, as well as taking a warm bath to cue their bodies that it's time for sleep.

It might also be a good idea to stay off of electronics. The blue light that's emitted from these devices can suppress melatonin, which is the sleep hormone.

Lastly, keep in mind that it's normal and totally okay to take around 10-20 minutes to fall asleep.

Al Waller: Great advice there. How about those who really struggle with the inability to sleep? For instance, insomniacs who feel like they've tried everything – what would you recommend to them?

Mihaela Vincze: Figuring out why you can't sleep is crucial to finding a solution. So, you might try to keep a sleep diary or even use a sleep tracking app for a couple weeks to help you identify behaviors that might be contributing to your inability to fall and stay asleep.

You should also keep information such as when you go to bed, when you take naps, when you drink caffeinated beverages – really anything that might affect your slumber.

Al Waller: I've actually heard about some of those apps and imagine it would be pretty interesting to see what your sleep patterns look like. But Mihaela, I remain baffled as to why it's just so hard for some people to get a good night’s rest.

Mihaela Vincze: There are lots of reasons why – if you went through something really hard recently, like a traumatic experience, you might find yourself up at night thinking of the event. The reason here would be very different than for someone who's dealing with a health problem that's causing their insomnia.

Back to my point of keeping a diary or collecting that information, you really want to do this so that you can present it to a healthcare professional or a sleep specialist so that they can use this information to think of a treatment option for you.

Al Waller: Good to know. Personally, having been the victim of a head-on collision many years ago, I can personally attest to what serious trauma can do to your sleep pattern.

Another sleep issue you often hear about is sleep apnea. Could you explain exactly what this condition is and what someone can do to treat it?

Mihaela Vincze: Yes, sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder that happens when your breathing stops and starts while you sleep. It can lead to symptoms such as trouble focusing, forgetfulness, fatigue, irritability, even mental health issues like depression or anxiety.

It can also lead to more serious health problems if it's left untreated, like liver complications, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes. If you think you might have sleep apnea, visit your doctor for a diagnosis and treatment. It's really important to go to a health care provider.

Al Waller: Absolutely, the smart move would be to consult your doctor if your sleep or lack of it is noticeably impacting your mental or physical health, especially which you reference, with the breathing.

Now, if you're up for it, how about spending the rest of this episode exploring and debunking some myths? Are you up for that?

Mihaela Vincze: Sure thing, going over the myths is a great opportunity to learn the facts.

Al Waller: Here's the first one that I'm thinking a lot of listeners may be curious about: Is more sleep always better for us?

Mihaela Vincze: As much as I wish this one was true, it's just not.

There are actual health problems that can arise from sleeping too much, or it might even be a sign of an underlying health condition.

Al Waller: Well, knowing that brings me to my next question. Is it true that our bodies can actually get used to sleeping less?

Mihaela Vincze: I've actually tried this one, so, I was really bummed out to learn that it's not true. Persistent sleep deprivation can lead to many health issues.

Even if it seems like you're getting accustomed to sleeping a lot less, research shows that health problems might be accruing because of the body's failure to get the rest and repair that it needs.

Al Waller: Okay, this one must be true – napping makes up for lack of sleep at night, right?

Mihaela Vincze: It’s also not true.

A quick nap can give us a boost, yes. But it's not a substitute for the quality sleep that we get at night and relying on naps to make up for a bad night's sleep can actually disrupt our sleep schedules.

If you do need to nap, experts at the national Sleep Foundation suggest keeping it to less than 30 minutes and during early afternoons.

Al Waller: Well, as someone who relies on an occasional power nap, especially on weekends before stepping out, I'm glad to hear that one at least, gets a pass.

Any last words of wisdom?

Mihaela Vincze: Yes, quality sleep really allows you to be the person that you want to be – that's energetic and focused. It also allows you to do all the things that you love most in life – and enjoy them.

It's important for your physical and mental health. So, if you find yourself with chronic sleep issues, be sure to consult your doctor or a medical professional.

Al Waller: Great counsel, Mihaela, and as always, great to have you with us.

We hope you’ll join us for future episodes, including the upcoming episode on employee assistance programs and factors to consider when contemplating a job change. Also, in case you missed it, check out our previous episode on avoiding surprises in your medical bills, and aging in place: how to grow older at home.

ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is brought to you by Transamerica Institute, a nonprofit private foundation dedicated to identifying, researching, and educating the public about retirement security and the intersections of health and financial well-being.

ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is produced by the Transamerica Institute with assistance from WYPR.

The information provided here is for educational purposes only and should not be construed as insurance, securities, ERISA, tax, investment, legal, medical, or financial advice or guidance. 

If you have comments or feedback, please reach out to [email protected]. Have a topic you’d like to learn more about? Send us ideas.

Until the next time, I’m your host Al Waller. Stay safe, be well and thanks for listening.

Al Waller is a long-time Baltimore native and employment expert with a 30-year career in leading and advising locally and globally based corporations on matters including: Talent Acquisition and Retention, Employee Relations, Training and Development.
Mihaela Vincze is a public health expert and experienced health care educator. Serving as Transamerica Institute’s health care content developer, she shares insights on health and wellness on ClearPath—Your Roadmap to Health and WealthSM. Mihaela earned her master’s and bachelor’s degrees in public health at California State University, Northridge.