Wednesday, June 6, 2012

New Research Shows That Irregular Sleep Can Cause Health Problems

Sleep is essential to how the body functions.  It gives you the energy that you need to navigate through your day, and it also gives the body some much needed biological rest.  We've all heard that you should get at least eight hours of sleep a night - and this is certainly true - but when the body regularly receives less than six hours of sleep numerous health issues can begin to set in.  More importantly, the body needs a regular sleep pattern.  Alternating between sleeping during the day and night can create the same adverse reactions, and these reactions can happen even if you still get eight hours.

The Sleep Studies

Harvard Medical School recently conducted a sleep study on 21 subjects.  These subjects lived in the laboratory for six weeks, so that their sleep schedule could be closely monitored.  The subjects had normal sleep patterns for the first three weeks, so that researchers could establish how their body's reacted to a normal sleep schedule.  The last three weeks they were only allowed to sleep for 5.6 hours, and at varying times. 

The reduced sleeping schedule affected the subject's bodies in a couple ways, and not for the better.  Many of the subjects had a drastic increase in blood sugar, and some subject's blood sugar rose to pre-diabetic levels.  This happened because the pancreas was creating less insulin, and it couldn't regulate blood sugar levels.  The subject's diet was closely monitored and altered so that they wouldn't gain weight, but researchers believed if they had continued with their normal diet the subjects could have gained up to twelve pounds.  The researchers attribute this to an 8% decrease in many of the subject's metabolism.

Another very similar study was conducted at Brigham and Women's Hospital, but this one tested irregular sleeping patterns more closely.  Again there were 21 subjects who were studied for six weeks, but the researchers constantly altered their sleeping schedules.  The subjects had to alter between sleeping during the day and night, and the effects on their bodies were very similar to the previous study.  If their diet wasn't controlled researchers believed that they would have gained up to 12 pounds, and these subjects also had an increase in blood sugar levels.

These studies are important, because they show that getting good sleep isn't only about the duration of sleep; it is also about the quality of sleep.  Alternating the times that the body gets to sleep can greatly reduce its quality.

So What Can You Do to Improve Sleep?

If you have a job that causes you to work rotating shifts it can be difficult to improve your sleep schedule and quality.  If you do have an irregular sleep schedule it is important to avoid bright lights for an hour before bed.  This may sound strange, but it can actually complement your body's natural chemistry.  Your body's melatonin is affected by the amount of light that the body gets.  Melatonin is a hormone that is secreted by the pineal gland, which is found in the brain.  Melatonin helps to keep track of the body's sleep cycle, and it is released in greater amounts once it becomes dark.  Melatonin helps to induce sleep, and during the day the pineal gland doesn't release as much.  This can make it very hard for the body to fall asleep during the day.

There are also numerous ways that anybody can help to improve their sleep patterns.  One of the most important is to have a regular bedtime and a routine that can help to ease you into sleep.  However, it is important to keep television out of the routine.  Television can stimulate the mind, and the light can make it hard to fall asleep.  If you do have trouble falling asleep you should go to a different room and try reading a book in a low lit room.  It is important to only sleep in your bed, and other activities in bed can reduce the amount of sleep that you get.

What you do during the day can also affect your sleeping patterns.  Try exercising for 45 minutes every day, and try to do it early in the day.  This may help to tire the body and mind.  You could also try to do some light stretching or yoga before bed, because this might help to calm the mind and relax the body.  While you're at work you should try to do potentially difficult or stressful jobs earlier in the day, and save light work for the afternoon.  Napping can also greatly hinder your ability to fall asleep.  Napping throws off your body's sleep schedule, and this is especially true for long naps.  If you do need to nap keep it short.  A nap that lasts 15 to 20 minutes is enough to re-energize the body without throwing off your sleep schedule.

Your diet can also affect your ability to get quality sleep.  Eating at the right times can make it easier to fall asleep.

The following dietary tips might help you to fall asleep easier: 
  • It is important to not go to bed hungry, but also not full.  It can be hard to find this balance, and if you do need to eat around bedtime make sure it's light. 
  • Reduce caffeine consumption.  This may sound obvious, but many people drink coffee after dinner.  It is important to not consume any caffeine within four hours of your bed time.
  • If you find yourself frequently waking up to go to the bathroom while you sleep, try not drinking any liquids after dinner. 
  • Many people drink alcohol, because they think that it can help them to fall asleep.  In actuality alcohol may make it harder for some to fall asleep.
Comfort is also an important factor when falling asleep.  It is important that you have a bed that you find comfortable, and the room should also be dark.  Temperature is an important fact in comfort.  Being too hot or too cold can also make it hard to sleep, so make sure that you keep your room at a comfortable temperature.

If you still have trouble falling asleep, try some breathing exercises.  Breathing exercises can be a great way to calm the mind.  Long and slow breaths can help to promote a feeling of tranquility, and this may help to ease the body into sleep. In addition, if you're not relaxed, you're not going to fall asleep as easily if you were feeling very relaxed before bed.

As you can see it isn't only important to get enough sleep, but it is also important to maintain a regular sleeping patter.  When your body doesn't get the quality sleep that it needs it is much easier to gain weight, and your body can also have trouble regulating blood sugar.  If you have trouble getting quality sleep try some of the tips above.  Even making the simplest adjustment can help to improve your sleep patterns

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