Lack of sleep can be a killer.
Not only does it leave you unable to function at full capacity the next day, but research has demonstrated the connection between not enough sound sleep and cancer, depression, heart attacks, and strokes.
Just one night of fewer than six hours of sleep can reduce the power of your cancer-fighting cells by as much as 70 percent.
But, up until recently, no one has looked at the regularity of your sleep habits as a factor in preventing disease.
Do you go to bed and wake up at the same time each day? Or are you someone who gets into bed at a different time each night, and wakes up… whenever?
Recent research points to an inconsistent sleep schedule as another risk factor for heart disease.
Irregular sleep can damage your heart
Clinical researchers from Duke University wanted to see if irregular sleep patterns, not just the amount of sleep we get, had an impact on our health.
They looked at almost 2,000 people and found that those with irregular sleep patterns may be at higher risk for obesity, heart disease, hypertension, and stroke.
While they can’t draw the conclusion that one causes the other, they did find some interesting associations which lead them to think that sleep patterns and health have a strong connection.
What was of real interest was the fact that the health risks had nothing to do with how long people slept.
Even if sleep lasted far less than the optimal seven or eight hours, if bedtimes and wake-up times were regular, there was less risk, particularly of cardiovascular disease.
The researchers weren’t totally surprised by these findings, since previous studies have linked shift work, where people’s bedtimes are highly irregular, with a greater risk of heart disease.
Some of that research has suggested that going to bed and waking at different times each day throws off glucose metabolism and stress levels, both of which affect heart health.
More consequences of sleep deprivation
We know that lack of sleep makes us grumpy, unable to focus, and more likely to have accidents. But there’s some interesting research that points to other things you may not associate with being sleep deprived, like…
- Several sleep studies from around the world have shown that being severely sleep-deprived can cause a healthy brain to process visual information in the same way a schizophrenic brain would process it.
- Feeling euphoric. Rather than causing an irritable mood, a lack of sleep can sometimes send us in the other direction. In fact, neurologists are intrigued by the possibilities of using controlled sleep deprivation to deal with depression.
- More pain. Studies have shown that lack of sleep can cause a person to have increased sensitivity to pain.
How to set “steady” sleep patterns
Of course, life can get in the way of maintaining consistent sleep patterns. The day is busy, and before you know it, it’s way past your usual bedtime.
Dr. Jessica Lunsford-Avery, the lead author of the Duke University study, has some advice for those of us who find it difficult to maintain consistent sleep patterns.
Actually, it’s nothing magical or complicated: set an alarm clock for the same time each day. The trick is that there’s no “sleeping in” on weekends.
While that may seem cruel, if you maintain the same bedtime each night, it will become a consistent pattern of behavior. You may even find yourself waking up automatically before the clock rings.
That’s a good sign: it means that your body is adjusting to the rhythm you’ve set for it.
Dr. Lunsford-Avery also advises that you avoid naps during the day since they can throw off the sleep rhythm you’re trying to set for your body.
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- Adult Bedtimes: Why Kids and Parents Both Need Regular Sleep — Fatherly.com
- It’s not just for kids — even adults appear to benefit from a regular bedtime — Duke University Medical Center
- Sleep studies and hallucinations — University of Michigan
- Why do humans hallucinate on little sleep? — Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute at Stanford University
- Meta-Analysis of the Antidepressant Effects of Acute Sleep Deprivation — Journal of Clinical Psychiatry
- Effects of sleep deprivation on pain sensitivity in healthy subjects — Sleep Medicine