With all the juggling you do between career, family and just plain house upkeep and chores, do you ever think to yourself, "Oh, well, I'll sleep when I'm dead"? While there are a million excuses of why you can't get a good night sleep – cue the litany of baby waking up in the middle of the night, sick kids, finishing the laundry and making the lunches, and don't forget completing that project due in the morning –Dr. Philip Gehrman, a sleep expert and assistant professor in Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, tells Philly.com that there is no substitute for sleep. Although you say that you will sleep when you are dead only tongue in cheek, the scary truth is that you do real damage to your health when you don't get the proper zzzz's.
Why is sleep so important?
You know from direct experience that without a good night sleep, you have less energy and trouble focusing on the day, but there are other less obvious effects as well.
According to Dr. Gehrman, "In terms of metabolism, when we don't get a good night of sleep, it causes release of hormones that trigger cravings for high fat, high carb foods. There has been growing evidence that consistently not getting a good night sleep increases the chance of obesity."
And we know that these behaviors also lead to cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and other health issues that could lead to premature death.
Lack of sleep has also been linked to the onset of Alzheimer's disease. "It affects our ability to regulate our emotions. Recent research has found that during sleep is when our brain clears out buildup of the waste products of our metabolism. One of those products is beta-amyloid that builds up in Alzheimer's disease. If this is true, then not getting enough sleep can increase your chance of dementia," he explained.
"Our sleep seems really critical for memory as well. It is harder to retain information that we learn on less sleep because our REM and non-REM sleep cycles are interrupted," he said.
How to get a better night sleep
Dr. Gehrman agrees with the CDC recommended seven to eight hours of sleep. He feels that without it you will end up with a sleep debt that will just grow every day. Here are some simple tips he gives for having a more restful night:
Make sure you give yourself adequate time in bed. Head to bed at a decent time.
If you are having difficulty sleeping or suffer from insomnia, don't lie down in bed until you are sleepy. People will spend a lot of time in bed tossing and turning when not ready for sleep.
Allow your mind to unwind before going to bed. That might mean unplugging from technology which can be too stimulating. Don't bring the laptop into bed. It should be a place to sleep not your living room. Minimizing caffeine after lunch time will also help you unwind from your day easier.
When I asked Dr. Gehrman what people should do when their life – single parent, demanding career – prevents you from getting the recommended amount of sleep each night, he wasn't able to give me a solution for the modern dilemma of overscheduled lives. He insists that there are no substitutes for sleep.
"Napping and catching up on sleep on the weekend is certainly better than nothing, but it is still not a substitute for a regular night of sleep. A lot of people think they can get used to living with a lack of sleep, but we lose the ability to judge our mental impairment when we do," he said.
So no more excuses, make a conscious effort to head to bed a half hour earlier each night until you are closer to the recommended seven or eight hours. What about the dishes and laundry piling up and all other things still on your to do list? Well, I don't have an answer for that just yet, but if you do, please share. I am definitely the one still running wash at 11 p.m. at night.