Your April resolution: Get some sleep

Part 4 in our 12-month series on resolutions for real health improvement

By James Beckerman, M.D., Providence St. Vincent Heart Clinic – Cardiology, part of Providence Heart and Vascular Institute

If you’ve been following along with our 2011 monthly resolutions for better health, then you’ve made some impressive changes in your life in just three months: you’ve had a thorough health checkup, kicked tobacco out of your life, and started a lifelong exercise habit. Give yourself a big high-five – I know that not all of these were easy to do. By comparison, you should be able to accomplish April’s resolution in your sleep.

Your resolution for this month is to get at least seven hours of sleep each night.

OK, maybe that’s easier said than done. In our over-scheduled to-do-list lives, there never seem to be enough hours in the day – or in the night, either – to get everything done. Sleep just isn’t a priority. And when we do finally lie down at the end of a long day, exhausted and ready for a few hours of shut-eye, the day’s stressors bubble up to the surface of our consciousness, demanding attention and refusing to let us nod off. Sleep, even when we want it, can be elusive.

Yet sleep is incredibly important to our health. After just a couple of sleep-deprived nights, we experience irritability, anxiety, fatigue, forgetfulness and mental fog; our productivity goes down; our performance in school and at work suffers, and our risk of injuries and accidents rises – and these are just the immediate problems. In the long term, poor sleep patterns are predictive of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and depression.

In addition to these health risks, poor sleep is associated with obesity. New data show that sleep affects our hormone balance in some interesting ways. The hormone ghrelin, produced in the gastrointestinal tract, signals your body when to feel hungry. Leptin, produced in fat cells, signals your body when to feel full. When you get a good night’s sleep, your leptin levels rise, making you feel full after eating less. But when you don’t sleep enough, ghrelin levels go up and leptin levels go down, which makes you feel less satisfied. This has been well documented in comparisons of people who sleep five hours versus eight hours a night; obesity can be three times more common among night owls than among those who regularly get a full night’s sleep. As it turns out, poor diet and lack of exercise may not be entirely to blame for the rapid rise in childhood obesity – maybe kids just aren’t getting enough sleep.

Most of us aren’t, either. Seven to eight hours appears to be the magic number. Make that your goal for good health, and start tonight. If you have difficulty getting enough sleep, or if you wake up every morning feeling exhausted, talk to your doctor about how to improve your sleep habits, and check out the links at the end of this article for more helpful advice. This is one situation where, if you snooze, you win.

For more information:

James Beckerman, M.D.

James Beckerman, M.D.
In addition to his role as a Providence Medical Group physician, Dr. Beckerman is author of “The Flex Diet: Design-Your-Own Weight Loss Plan” (Simon & Schuster, 2010). He sees patients at Providence St. Vincent Heart Clinic, located at 9427 SW Barnes Road, Suite 498, Portland. For more information about the clinic’s services, call 503-216-0900.