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For good health, make sleep a priority

Lois E. Krahn, M.D.
Psychiatry and Psychology, Editorial Board member of Mayo Clinic Health Letter

Sleep is essential to good health. It's one of the body's basic needs. I think most people realize that if you're under stress, you don't sleep well. But I'm not sure people fully understand the deeper connections. When you don't sleep well, your ability to concentrate, to calmly deal with daily pressures, to simply feel good is compromised.

What I'm seeing more commonly, is that people are trying to get by on too little sleep. Our society has more conveniences that are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Internet and e-mail are available nonstop. Stores are open longer hours, and many jobs require workers to perform shift work. There's increased temptation to get up early as well as to stay up late. The result is, more and more people aren't getting the seven to nine hours of sleep recommended by doctors.

Eventually, this behavior will catch up with you. We all know that individuals who are sleep deprived are at higher risk of accidents or performance problems because of daytime sleepiness. In addition, research indicates that people who don't get enough sleep are often at increased risk of high blood pressure, negative mood, irritability and obesity. An interesting area of ongoing research is the relationship between lack of sleep and weight gain. Individuals who get only five to six hours of sleep each night often have a harder time controlling their weight. Why is this? Are they eating to compensate for lack of sleep, or is something happening to their metabolism causing them to gain weight?

I think probably the single most important thing that people can do when it comes to good health and sleep is to make sleep a priority. People feel they need to complete all of these tasks each day and then with whatever time is left, sleep. We need to reverse that and set aside adequate time for sleep and then see how many of the tasks we can get done in the time remaining.

If you're having trouble sleeping, consider whether increased caffeine consumption may be affecting your ability to sleep. Many people start their day with a cup of coffee, and they’re correct that caffeine can improve alertness. Moderate intake of caffeine — two 8-ounce cups of coffee a day limited to the morning — is generally OK, though some people with heart conditions or high anxiety may wish to avoid caffeine. What most people don’t realize is that caffeine’s effects last for at least six hours. Excessive caffeine or drinking caffeine too late in the day can cause problems, including trouble sleeping at night. You also shouldn’t use caffeine to replace sleep.

Your snoring habits can be another indication of sleep issues. Your may snore only under certain circumstances, such as after having a glass of wine or when lying on your back. In these cases, snoring usually isn’t cause for concern. However, any snoring is an indication that the upper airway is narrow enough that the surrounding tissue vibrates. If your snoring is loud and continuous, regardless of body position, this is more worrisome. It can be a warning of a potentially serious sleep disorder. Seek medical attention if your snoring is accompanied by pauses in breathing, awakenings at night, daytime sleepiness or elevated blood pressure. These features are all suggestive of obstructive sleep apnea, a condition that interrupts breathing while you sleep.

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