We all know sleep is important but just how important? According to the Sleep Foundation, sleep plays an essential role in helping the brain function properly. Consistent sleep helps fight off diseases and helps you focus and have energy throughout the day. It is generally accepted by medical professionals that sleep is an important aspect for overall physical and mental health and well-being.
How much sleep do I need?
Generally speaking, an 8-hour night of restful sleep is recommended by most professional organizations for adults. This falls right in the middle of the 7-9 hours per night recommendation by the Sleep Foundation for adults. Some individuals may need more or less based on their age or other chronic conditions. This being said, it is unclear if 8 hours is the optimal number of daily sleep that is required to reduce one’s risk for developing long term health complications.
Why Is Sleep Important
Researchers have long tried to answer why and how sleep is important. Unfortunately, the answer still is largely unanswered. We can clearly define the benefits of consistent restful sleep. Below are some examples of how sleep can benefit you according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.
- Decrease your likelihood of getting sick
- Help you stay at a healthy weight
- Reduce your stress
- Improve your mood
- Think more clearly and be more productive
- Get along with people better
Although we can clearly define benefits of consistent and restful sleep, we have only recently begun associating medical conditions with a lack of sleep over time.
What are the most common sleep disorders?
There are many types of sleep disorders but for our purposes, the two most important are obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. Both conditions result in disturbed sleep patterns that are associated with reduced oxygen delivery to your body during sleeping hours. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles in your throat relax, blocking your airway at times during sleep. The most common and well-known sign of this is snoring. Central sleep apnea occurs when your brain intermittently fails to send proper signals to your breathing muscles. This is different from obstructive sleep apnea as there is nothing obstructing the upper part of your throat. It is also less common.
Risks Associated with Lack of Sleep
Both obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea may cause changes throughout your blood vessels which in return can cause significant variation in your blood pressure, heart rate and lung function. Over time, these disorders can cause damage to your blood vessels and permanent changes to your lung function that are sometimes irreversible.
The most notable changes with obstructive sleep apnea at this time appear to be within an individual’s lungs. Chronic low oxygen damages lung function and results in a ‘stiffness’ that can be irreversible over a long period of time. It is believed that this in turn indirectly affects heart structure and function and leads to an increased risk of developing atrial fibrillation, stroke and heart disease.
Individuals with obstructive sleep apnea are often found to have co-existing medical conditions such as hypertension, heart disease, atrial fibrillation and stroke. In general, obstructive sleep apnea seems to increase one’s risk for developing either one or multiple conditions that overall increase a person’s risk for long medical illness.
For example, physicians routinely suffer from sleep deprivation and a significant alteration in their sleep patterns over their careers. The data has been consistent and suggests that physicians and others who suffer from long term sleep disturbance (an estimated 1 in 3 adults) have higher rates of death and associated medical illness. That being said, it has not been established that significant alterations in an individual’s sleep pattern can totally explain the long term effects on the cardiovascular system. This would suggest that there are multiple factors contributing to long term illness and that obstructive sleep apnea is simply one of many that poses a risk.
The decision to aggressively treat either obstructive sleep apnea or central sleep apnea by your physician depends upon which diagnosis you have been given. It is important to differentiate these two disorders because they can have different risks. There is evidence that treating patients with central sleep apnea with prior heart conditions can potentially increase their risk of death. On the other hand, treating obstructive sleep apnea seems to offer significant clinical benefits both short and long term for many patients.
Currently, there are no national guidelines that direct a physician to specifically treat any form of sleep disturbance with the goal of reducing a person’s long term risk for heart disease, stroke or hypertension. We do know however, that treating an individual with obstructive sleep apnea with a CPAP device does seem to reduce their risk for potential long term complications. At the very least, treating sleep disorders does by itself improve a person’s quality of life and most individuals report they feel generally better.
Improving Your Sleep Hygiene
Most experts agree that in order to improve your sleep habits one must be intentional about doing so. This is commonly referred to as improving your sleep hygiene. In general, this refers to removing any variable that is known to disrupt a person’s sleep patterns. Some ways to help your sleep patterns are:
- Not eating closely before going to bed
- Going to bed at a consistent time each night
- Avoiding stimulants like caffeine before bedtime
- Turning off disruptive noise (TV, radio, etc.)
- Finding a quiet, cool, dark place to sleep
In addition, and perhaps most importantly, if you have been diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea, learning to use your CPAP is extremely important. Although initially uncomfortable and often difficult to use, becoming compliant with your CPAP is a major milestone in limiting your future medical illness related to poor sleep patterns. The use of sleep aids is usually reserved for those individuals who, despite their efforts, have been unable to achieve a restful night’s sleep despite applying the measures listed above.
Overall, sleep is important. Getting a good night’s sleep not only improves your quality of life, but helps you lower your risk for long term health complications associated with a lack of consistent sleep. We hope this month’s education has been helpful. Until next month, live well and most of all, get some rest!
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