We all know we are supposed to exercise and eat well to maintain good health, but another factor that is essential to our health is sleep. Adults should sleep for 7 or more hours each night for optimal health. However, more than 1/3 of U.S. adults get less than that. The obvious consequences of lack of sleep are feeling tired, both physically and mentally, and having difficulty with thinking and memory. However, there are other more serious side effects of chronic sleep loss.

Lack of sleep can affect our health, putting us at an increased risk of heart disease, heart attacks, stroke, diabetes, and obesity. It can also play a role in our mental health as lack of sleep increases the risk of depression. In addition to those conditions, lack of sleep makes our immune system weaker. In fact, people who sleep less than 7 hours per night are 3 times more likely to get the common cold. Sleep apnea, which is a sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts, can also cause these health conditions and should be treated.

We also tend to look older when we have a lack of sleep as our body releases more stress hormones. On the other hand, we don’t release enough growth hormone, which helps grow and repair our muscles, skin, and bones. Not only does our body repair itself at night, but our brain does as well. While we sleep our brain forms new pathways to help us learn and remember new information, but it also flushes toxins out and gets rid of connections we don’t need.

Also, sleep can help reduce pain. Studies show that when we have sleep loss, we can tolerate less pain. On the other hand, a good night’s sleep has been shown to be as helpful as pain medication for pain relief. Obviously, sleep is a very important part of good health.

In addition getting more sleep for better health, we can also improve our quality of sleep by practicing “sleep hygiene.” This includes napping no longer than 30 minutes during the day, avoiding caffeine and alcohol close to bed time, exercising (but not too close to bedtime), avoiding heavy and rich foods right before bed, and making sure the sleep environment is comfortable. You can also make sure the temperature is below 67 degrees, the lights are off, you are not watching TV in bed, and maintain a regular sleep schedule.

If you have concerns regarding your sleep, you can always contact your primary care physician.

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