The Single Most Important Health Habit!

Have you ever had one of those days that never seemed to go that well from

the minute you heard the alarm clock go off? Maybe you forgot your wallet or

purse at the house, missed breakfast, lost your temper in the car when

someone cut you off, reflexively sent an email response to a co-worker that

you really wished you hadn’t, you ate junk food for lunch, couldn’t

concentrate on a thing at work except your desire for a nap, and came home

and couldn’t find the energy to go the gym? Welcome to the experience of

sleep deprivation. Maybe your days haven’t been quite this bad but you are

familiar with experiences of demonstrating poor patience with your

co-workers, difficulty concentrating and craving caffeine or sugar foods

every day at 3pm, etc.

The problem is, this is only showing you the effects of sleep loss

externally, there is plenty of internal damage going on as well. In fact,

sleep loss has a ripple effect into virtually every dimension of health and

wellness to include the physical, emotional, social, family and

occupational. It affects you biologically and personally; increasing your

rates of disease and costing you personal relationships and possibly your

professional reputation. The sad news: most Americans are not getting enough

sleep. Often trading sleep for that one more article to surf on the web, one

more sharecare topic to search, one more email to compose, one more phone

call to make, and of course the “cramming” one more hour of study or

preperation for a meeting, presentation, or test. Some people view sleep

loss as a “badge of courage” or the “price you pay” to get ahead, and for

some medical residencies and other professions, “the rite of passage if you

want to join this profession.” Sleep loss also affects our direct job

performance and has a huge impact on safety. In the military, we

occasionally use sleep loss as a weapon on the battlefield; wearing our

enemy down through non-stop engagement; the problem is, that can backfire on

us too and it has. So senior leaders are cautious and extremely careful of

employing this tactic and when it is used, only for specific, organized and

orchestrated periods of time allowing for a full rest and recovery before

massive errors occur that can cost lives whether in a multi-million dollar

aircraft or flying an unmanned aerial vehicle inside a truck.

I believe sleep is the single most vital wellness function we do every

single 24 hour period and yet it requires no treadmills, no hours of

sweating at the gym, no personal trainers, and no equipment. It has dramatic

implications on our entire body and sets you up for success everywhere else.

It’s commonly overlooked at the doctor’s office because we as doctors don’t

understand exactly how it works and its difficult to test for (in fact,

there is not standardized medical test to see if you are getting enough

sleep). But that is no reason to ignore the health treasures afforded to

those who get a great night’s sleep on a regular basis.

On average we spend 20-25 years of our lives sleeping and 5-7 of those are

spent dreaming in the critical period known as “REM” or “Rapid Eye

Movement”. Unfortunately, many of us look at this time as wasted! Not

true-it can be some of the most glorious “unconscious” time to improve our


During REM periods which occur at regular intervals throughout a night of

good rest (not impaired by alcohol, caffeine, or other drugs) our brainwave

patterns register signals that are very similar to those produced when we

are awake and concentrating and we secrete growth hormone as well. This is

fascinating! We are actually intensely concentrating and focusing for

several hours throughout a good night’s rest and repairing our bodies! Your

brain, the center of all health, is exercising while you lie quietly in

dream-land! What do you think happens if we destroy the quality of that REM

sleep? Poor grades, inattention, obesity, sugar cravings, lack of normal

growth, high blood pressure, poor interpersonal skills, no energy for the

gym, possibly diabetes, etc etc.

As mentioned, during sleep we secrete hormones that repair tissue and renew

microscopic damages to cells and organs before they develop into bigger

problems.  Getting good amounts of sleep means you will live longer and

experience less disease. You will retain information better, perform better,

and get more out of your work outs. You will be more patient with others,

less demanding and prone to anger, and vastly improve your social pillar of

wellness which is a crucial piece of your overall health. It will likely

also benefit your family relationships. Don’t overlook the simple beauty of

a good night’s rest because most do.

Summary of Sleep Loss Effects

Immune system: If you sleep on average less than 7 hours, you are three

times more likely to get sick. Do you know that your immune system is also

constantly surveying and killing cells that can develop into cancer?

Weight Control: If you don’t get enough sleep, chances are you will be

battling obesity. A 2008 review article in the journal Obesity looked at 36

different studies and the relationship between sleep duration and body

weight. There seems to be an especially strong association with

children…guess what is virtually an epidemic in this country? That’s

right–childhood obesity. Make sure your child is getting enough, for their

weight and performance in the classroom and children need signficantly more

sleep than adults! Sleep loss disrupts normal hunger and appetite through

hormonal mechanisms and the resulting daytime fatigue often discourages you

from exercising. Of course obesity carries with it all its own health


Mental Illness: People that don’t get enough sleep are four times more

likely to develop major depression according to a recent study looking at

1,000 adults over a three year time period. In young children and teenagers

this seems to be especially true–where sleep deprivation on a regular basis

preceeds depression 69% of the time and anxiety 27% of the time. And worst

yet, these can be the groups that just don’t see the need for sleep and due

to social pressures, feel the need to stay up, online and texting with their


Diabetes: Thought to be the result of the hormonal changes, people with

regular sleep loss have a three fold higher incidence of type II diabetes.

And you know what this means–heart disease and other health complications.

Who would have ever thought that sleep had anything to do with your

metabolism of sugar? Well, it does!

High Blood Pressure: If you sleep less than six hours per night, you have a

three and one half times greater risk of developing high blood pressure,

another major factor in heart disease. This was described in a 2009 Journal

Sleep that looked at over 1700 men and women.

Heart disease: Even short term sleep deprivation increases your risk of

heart disease by elevating your cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood

pressure. And if you have sleep apnea–this greatly increases your risk of

irregular heart beats, stroke, and heart failure.

Risk of Death: Well, and if all that just isn’t enough for you to start

sleeping more, people that short themselves on sleep have a 1.3 fold risk of

death overall, and this is much greater if you have sleep apnea.

Performance Decrements: So often I hear people wanting to stay up to study

more or prepare for a big speech or think about their moves on the athletic

field. Forget about it and go to bed. Those extra hours rehearsing will only

hurt your performance and you are much better off trading the sleep for less

preperation so that what you have prepared for will be executed with

precision, accuracy, and grace; no matter what you are doing.

I hope that you start taking sleep very serious for your health, wellness,

performance and if you have children, for their sake. You will be a better

parent when responding to their needs and you will instill habits in them

that also reap their own rewards both academically and physically. Sleep

affects everything about a person since it affects your brain so make it a

regular part of you (and your family’s) wellness routine.

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