What You Don't Know About Sleep Can Hurt You
Back when I was in training to become a pediatrician, the medical industry, in general, seemed to treat sleep as nothing more than the absence of being awake. Sure, I was introduced to the basics of sleep with respect to sleep cycles and how many hours of sleep are recommended for any given age, but, to a degree, this information seemed secondary and indirectly relevant to the medical field at best. As I spent my days and nights memorizing these sleep-related and many other facts and figures, I was simultaneously putting sleep on the backburner – both for myself and for my patients.
I am happy to report that, at least to a certain extent, things have changed since then as the many benefits of sleep are increasingly recognized by medical professionals. While many hospitals are still less than ideal places to get a decent night's sleep and medical training continues to be tiring, there is good news in that the medical industry, along with many others, is now recognizing and continuing to learn new things about sleep that can most certainly help us in our commitment to being healthy and to raising happy, healthy children.
In committing to factor sleep into our healthy lifestyle equations, it's therefore going to be important that we all work to expand our thinking about sleep beyond just the day-to-day parenting aspects involved in getting kids to sleep on time. While bedtime bargaining and battles, bedwetting and making the switch to “big boy/girl beds" are all examples of common development and growth challenges that can leave a family restless, mounting evidence now suggests that there are many highly compelling reasons to focus your efforts on ensuring your entire family develops healthy sleep habits for the long term. In fact, many now share similar sentiments with UC Berkeley neuroscientist and psychology professor Matthew Walker that sleep may be “the single most effective thing you can do to reset your brain and body for health."
New Discoveries About Sleep
With that powerful thought in mind and acknowledging what we don't know about sleep can hurt us, here's just a sampling of what is now being discovered about the far-reaching and long-term importance of getting enough, quality sleep:
A “weighty" problem. While it might seem a bit counterintuitive, studies now suggest that people who sleep less are likely to weigh more. While researchers are still working to identify the specific mechanisms responsible for this concerning association, cravings for foods high in sugar and fat appear to increase with fatigue, and appetite appears to be harder to control when we're tired.
No way to “sugar coat" the issue. Adding to the list of health and medical implications of getting too little sleep is a recent UK study, published in Pediatrics, that found that children who got less sleep were not only more likely to have higher BMIs (BMI, or body mass index, representing the standard measure of obesity), but were also found to have higher blood sugar levels and increased insulin resistance – two additionally concerning markers for Type 2 diabetes.
Shortened sleep = accelerated aging. I recently shared a blog post detailing research on a disturbing new relationship between shortened sleep duration in kids and the shortening of the protective caps that sit at the end of their chromosomes called telomeres—a process associated with poor health outcomes. Without going into the microscopic details involved, it is the shortening of telomeres that is used as a marker of cellular aging, and too little sleep has now joined the ranks of poor diet, lack of exercise and stress as something that appears to speed up this aging process.
Getting smart about sleep. Sleep is increasingly being recognized as “food for the brain." When it comes to thinking, learning and using our heads, lots and lots of evidence now reinforces what many of us have long known from experience: that when we're tired, we simply don't think as clearly…or as quickly…or as creatively. Whether measured in school performance, the ability to make quick decisions while driving or a study from the RAND Corporation estimating that sleep deprivation costs us $411 billion per year in lost productivity, it is quite clear that our brains need sleep to function well.
Getting emotional about sleep. The challenges associated with not getting enough sleep extend well beyond physical aspects of health, as they also include increased moodiness and decreased ability to control, inhibit or change emotional responses.
All told, the case for grabbing your pillow, jumping into bed and getting a good night's sleep is strong and only getting longer and more compelling by the day. It's therefore my hope that by taking just a little time out of your day to acknowledge some of the many risks associated with not doing so, you'll be all the more motivated to rank quality sleep just a bit higher on your family's priority list.