Why do we sleep? What are the health effects of lack of sleep? How much sleep should we be getting? How can we sleep better? Ambitious for one page but let’s try to look at all these questions.

  Sleep is essential for regular functioning of the body and the brain. Sleep apparently plays a very important role in brain and memory functions and dreaming may be a large part of this process. All the processes involved in initiating and maintaining sleep lie within the brain and they are not well understood. 

  In animal studies, severe sleep deprivation can actually lead to death. Sleep deprivation is common in our modern, human world. Symptoms include: fatigue; deterioration of performance, attention and motivation; poor concentration and intellectual capacity. Sleep deprived individuals are more prone to accidents at home, at work and while driving. There are also many biological effects of sleep deprivation such as increased coronary arterial disease, obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. Sleep deprivation causes a reduction of the natural appetite suppressant (leptin) but an increase in the appetite stimulant hormone (ghrelin) and this leads to obesity. If there was drug or a compound that produced all the side effects that we see with sleep deprivation the drug or compound would be banned! 

  Besides sleep deprivation there are a number of diseases related to poor sleep. These sleep pathologies include obstructive sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, narcolepsy (where people fall asleep very suddenly in inappropriate places), sleep-related eating disorder and many others. Sleep is now a medical specialty and we are lucky to have an overnight sleep lab here in Nanaimo.

  On average humans need 7.5 to 8 hours of sleep each night. Everyone is different though and some individuals may be able to get by on 6 hours while others may need 9 or 10 hours. The key factor is to get the amount of sleep which makes you feel refreshed, rested and energetic the next day. This basic need for sleep is defined more by heredity rather than by your environment.

  North Americans spend over 600 million dollars a year on over-the-counter sleep aids. Probably much more is spent on prescription drugs to treat sleep problems. It is obviously a problem for a significant number of people.

  What can we do that doesn’t cost us anything? 

keep a regular sleep/wake time schedule, even on weekends

sleep for the amount you need to feel rested

avoid daytime napping

keep TV, loud music and future planning out of the bed. Use your bed only for sleep or intimacy.

avoid beverages with caffeine (coffee, black tea or chocolate) in the evening

avoid alcohol near bedtime

avoid smoking especially in the evening

don’t go to bed hungry

adjust your bedroom environment: pleasant temperature, comfortable bed and pillows, ensure darkness.

exercise regularly for at least 20 minutes but do not exercise close to your bedtime.

  Like good nutritious food, good restful sleep is essential for all of us. If you’re not sleeping well and the simple guidelines above don’t help, talk to your physician or naturopathic physician about it.

Dr. Hill is a member of the American Association of Dental Sleep Medicine. 

Published by Dr. Larry Hill

Dr. Larry Hill traveled to Nepal as a volunteer dentist in September 2008.