Sadly, many Americans struggle to get enough good sleep.
Chronic insomnia affects nearly one out of five adults, teenagers, and children.
And growing use of digital devices before bed – and in bed – is making matters worse.
Aside from making you miserable and sapping your energy, lack of good sleep is linked to premature death, and cardiovascular, immune, nervous system, and hormonal problems:
- Alcohol abuse
- Diabetes and glucose intolerance
- Cardiovascular disease and hypertension
The increasingly common affliction known as sleep apnea also raises the risk for cardiovascular disease and death (Hopps E et al. 2015).
As Shakespeare's fellow Elizabethan playwright Thomas Dekker wrote, "Sleep is the golden chain that ties health and our bodies together."
Alarming findings on how "junk” sleep harms your heart
A recent study examined the impact of too little sleep on arterial health, specifically calcium build-up.
Calcium can accumulate in – and worsen – the fatty "plaque” typically found in the arteries of people with cardiovascular disease.
South Korean scientists studied the ways in which sleep habits can impact early signs of heart disease among folks in their 30s and 40s (Kim CW et al. 2015).
This large study involved more than 45,000 adults (average age around 40) who answered questions about their sleep habits (how long, how well, etc.).
The Korean researchers also examined the participants, looking for two early signs of cardiovascular disease:
- Artery stiffness in the ankle area.
- Calcium build-up in the heart's arteries.
Overall, the volunteers who slept fewer than five hours per night had 50% more calcium in their arteries, compared with those who slept at least seven hours.
Surprisingly, it looks like too much sleep can also hurt your cardiovascular health.
People who reported sleeping nine or more hours had worse results than sleep deprived people: 70% more calcium build-up compared to the seven-hours group.
And in a separate study, men who slept nine hours or more a night at greater risk for arterial stiffness in their ankles (Tsai TC et al. 2014).
After comparing the participants' responses to their test results, the Korean team linked several sleep patterns to higher risk for cardiovascular disease: poor sleep quality, too little sleep, and too much sleep.
The researchers speculated that poor sleep leads to higher blood pressure, poor glucose (blood sugar) control, and higher levels of inflammation … all of which can contribute to calcium build-up.
Four steps to better sleep
These tips cover some of the more common reasons for poor sleep.
#1: Get unglued from digital screens before bedtime, or wear blue-blocking glasses
Stop staring at digital devices well before bedtime, or you'll have trouble falling asleep.
The light-emitting diodes (LED) in digital-device screens emit a particular kind of blue light.
Not only do tablets, laptops, and smart phones stimulate your brain and add stress, the blue light they emit blocks the release of melatonin.
Melatonin is a hormone that's partially responsible for setting and regulating our "internal clock.”
Our pituitary gland secretes melatonin in response to darkness, which triggers the desire and ability to sleep.
Studies show that two hours of exposure to light from cell phone, tablet, and other devices suppresses melatonin levels significantly.
If you must spend time on a digital device near bedtime, wear glasses that block blue light.
A study published earlier this year suggests that this can substantially reduce the melatonin-suppressing effects of blue light, and enable normal sleep … at least in teenage boys.
As the authors wrote, "Compared with clear lenses, blue light-blocking glasses significantly attenuated [reduced] LED-induced melatonin suppression in the evening and decreased vigilant attention and subjective alertness before bedtime.” (van der Lely S et al. 2015).
Of course, wearing blue-blocking glasses won't prevent your brain from being stimulated by the text or images on a smart phone, tablet, or computer.
#2: Keep an eye on your caffeine consumption
Many of us enjoy a late-afternoon cup of tea or coffee … particularly if we've not slept well the night before.
Unfortunately, a caffeine kick late in the day can contribute to an endless cycle of insomnia.
On average it takes about six hours for half of the caffeine you consume to leave your body ... a delay that varies, based on your genetics.
And studies confirm that consuming caffeine even six hours before bed can impair sleep. So, your 4:00 pick-me-up is still around by 10:00 at night.
#3: Skip the nightcap
A nightcap can deliver a nice, drowsy feeling.
Unfortunately, the apparent sleep inducing effects of alcohol are illusory, and typically short lived.
While alcohol may help you feel asleep more quickly, it reduces critical REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and disrupts the second half of your sleep cycle.
While one to two drinks may have minimal effect, a recent research review found that regular reliance on alcohol to fall asleep can become habitual and worsen matters over time.
#4: Keep your sleep schedule consistent
It's tempting to try to finish an engaging book, or watch one more episode of a favorite show.
But it's best to avoid staying up late when your morning schedule allows, and then sleep in to compensate.
A consistent sleep schedule keeps your body's internal clock on track and gives you a better shot at high-quality sleep.
So maintaining the same sleep schedule – even on weekends – is a very good idea.
Sleep experts agree that if you consistently need an alarm clock to wake up, you probably need to get to bed a bit earlier.
Clearly, it's smart to arrange your life in ways that will help ensure good, sound sleep.
We encourage you to heed Shakespeare's other contemporary, Francis Bacon: "Silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom."
- Cajochen C, Frey S, Anders D, Späti J, Bues M, Pross A, Mager R, Wirz-Justice A, Stefani O. Evening exposure to a light-emitting diodes (LED)-backlit computer screen affects circadian physiology and cognitive performance. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2011 May;110(5):1432-8. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00165.2011. Epub 2011 Mar 17.
- Chang AM, Aeschbach D, Duffy JF, Czeisler CA. Evening use of light-emitting eReaders negatively affects sleep, circadian timing, and next-morning alertness. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2015 Jan 27;112(4):1232-7. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1418490112. Epub 2014 Dec 22.
- Hopps E, Caimi G. Obstructive Sleep Apnea Syndrome: Links Between Pathophysiology and Cardiovascular Complications. Clin Invest Med. 2015 Dec 4;38(6):E362-70.
- Kim CW, Chang Y, Zhao D, Cainzos-Achirica M, Ryu S, Jung HS, Yun KE, Choi Y, Ahn J, Zhang Y, Rampal S, Baek Y, Lima JA, Shin H, Guallar E, Cho J, Sung E. Sleep Duration, Sleep Quality, and Markers of Subclinical Arterial Disease in Healthy Men and Women. Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol. 2015 Oct;35(10):2238-45. doi: 10.1161/ATVBAHA.115.306110. Epub 2015 Sep 10.
- National Center on Sleep Disorders Research. National Institute of Health Sleep Disorders Research Plan. November 2011. Accessed at https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/files/docs/resources/sleep /201101011NationalSleepDisordersResearchPlanDHHSPublication11-7820.pdf
- Tsai TC, Wu JS, Yang YC, Huang YH, Lu FH, Chang CJ. Long sleep duration associated with a higher risk of increased arterial stiffness in males. Sleep. 2014 Aug 1;37(8):1315-20. doi: 10.5665/sleep.3920.
- van der Lely S, Frey S, Garbazza C, Wirz-Justice A, Jenni OG, Steiner R, Wolf S, Cajochen C, Bromundt V, Schmidt C. Blue blocker glasses as a countermeasure for alerting effects of evening light-emitting diode screen exposure in male teenagers. J Adolesc Health. 2015 Jan;56(1):113-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2014.08.002. Epub 2014 Oct 3