Sleep: We all need it to survive, but so many of us fall short of a healthy amount. More than a third of U.S. adults aren’t getting the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep a night.
“Sleep is essential for health and well-being and is more important than ever as we look to quality sleep to help boost immunity, increase energy, and improve recovery,” says Peter Polos, MD, Ph.D., sleep medicine specialist and expert for Sleep Number. “Research has linked quality sleep to everything from fighting off the common cold to boosting vaccine effectiveness.” Good sleep also influences our energy and ability to focus — affecting everything from your professional life to personal life.
One study published in JAMA Network Open found that doctors with sleep impairments were significantly more likely to experience a medical error of clinical significance. For athletes or individuals who train or exercise frequently, sleep is crucial to recovery and injury prevention. “Sleep is when the body recovers and repairs, and the mind can restore itself to perform daily cognitive and behavioral functions,” says Mike Dow, Ph.D., PsyD, a psychotherapist. Research published in the journal Sleep Medicine Clinics linked insufficient sleep to an increase in injury and a reduction in motivation to exercise in the future.
Meet the Experts
Peter Polos, MD, PhD, is a sleep medicine specialist and expert for Sleep Number.
Mike Dow, PhD, PsyD, is a psychotherapist.
David Friedman, ND, DC, is a naturopathic doctor and clinical nutritionist.
Alex Dimitriu, MD, is double board-certified in Psychiatry and Sleep Medicine and founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine.
Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, is a board-certified internist and expert on chronic fatigue syndrome.
In short, there are many ways how not getting enough sleep prevents us from living each day to our total capacity —mentally, physically, and emotionally. Since these reasons can vary from person to person, we asked sleep experts to share some critical signs of unhealthy sleep and what we can do about it.
You have inconsistent sleep-wake times
Consistency is essential in nearly all facets of our life — and sleep is no exception. “The sleeper won’t feel his or her best with an inconsistent sleep schedule. He or she can feel irritable and drowsy or experience mood swings, headaches, and a decline in concentration and memory,” says Dr. Polos. Luckily, having a consistent sleep schedule can improve sleep quality. Dr. Polos recommends setting a sleep and wake alarm to remind yourself when to go to bed (and sticking with it even on weekends!).
You’re having trouble losing weight
If you’re trying to shed some pounds but are coming up short despite your best efforts, one unsuspecting area of your life you might want to fine-tune is your sleep habits. When sleep-deprived, the body releases the stress hormone cortisol, explains David Friedman, ND, DC, naturopathic doctor, and clinical nutritionist. Cortisol is a major contributor to fat accumulation in the abdomen (also known as visceral fat). According to Friedman, our appetite-regulating hormones ghrelin and leptin are affected when we don’t get enough sleep. “Ghrelin levels rise, which is the hormone that makes us feel hungry, and our leptin levels drop, which is the hormone that makes us feel full. This means when we’re awake, we tend to eat more but feel less satisfied,” he says.
You’re feeling foggy and forgetful
If you’re not getting enough sleep each night, it’s pretty common to feel off-kilter the next day. “When the body is in a deep sleep, we can process information from the day and store these memories in the cerebral cortex,” explains Dr. Friedman. “By not allowing the brain to reset each night, your ability to learn and retain new information may be impaired.”
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You’re constantly getting sick
You can’t always control when and if you get sick, but if you’re constantly under the weather, it may be due to a suppressed immune system — and a suppressed immune system may result from insufficient sleep, according to Dr. Friedman. “Sleep helps the body produce infection-fighting antibodies and cytokines that help the body combat bacteria and viruses,” he says. “Not getting enough deep, restorative sleep reduces the body’s ability to fend off and recover from disease-causing germs and affects prolactin production needed for a healthy immune system.” In addition to getting the 7-9 recommended hours of sleep each night, he recommends limiting your alcohol intake, as it can have a negative effect on your immune system and cause you to wake up several times through the night.
You catch up on sleep on the weekends
If you frequently find that you need to catch up on sleep with a long nap or sleep in on the weekends or on vacation, it could be a sign that you’re lacking in sleep efficiency, warns Alex Dimitriu, MD, who is double board-certified in Psychiatry and Sleep Medicine and founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine. “Beware of the flip flop insomnia pattern: Some people go from undersleeping one night and oversleeping the next, in a vicious ongoing cycle,” he says. The best fix for this issue is to get enough sleep consistently, not to feel you have anything to make up for.
You’re seeing signs of pre-mature aging
“Sleep triggers production of growth hormone, which turns fat into muscle, and has been called the ‘fountain of youth’ hormone,” says Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, a board-certified internist, and expert on chronic fatigue syndrome. “Growth hormone is made predominantly during sleep, sex, and exercise and is important in anti-aging has been shown in many ways.” In addition to committing to better sleep patterns, consider amping up your skincare routine to help you feel and look refreshed and youthful.
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