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Is lack of sleep taking a toll on your health?

How many hours of sleep did you get last night? If it was less than eight, you may be one of the 47 million adults suffering from sleep deprivation, a serious medical condition that can accelerate the aging process. Until recently, many health professionals didn’t take the lack of sleep seriously. But new research proves that not getting enough “beauty rest” in-creases the risk of several health problems. Other symptoms interfere with memory, energy levels, physical abilities and emotional mood.

So, what’s normal? According to the National Commission on Sleep Disorders, most of us need eight to nine hours’ slumber a night (though some people can survive on four or five). How much sleep you need tends to change with age. Two-year-olds, for example, should get nine to 13 hours; 10-year-olds should get 10 to 11 hours; and 16- to 65-year-olds need six to nine. For those over 65, six to eight is adequate.

Sleep benefits

If you think you can handle your lack of slumber with another cup of coffee, think again. Caffeine can actually make you feel more tired than you did before—and it just helps perpetuate the cycle. Sleep is often the first thing busy people forgo; yet it’s something our bodies desperately need.

Our body clocks are genetically programmed to operate on five cycles of sleep, ranging from very light to very deep, and finally to rapid eye movement (REM). The cycle continues through the night, with varying times spent in each stage, until we are spending most of our evening in REM sleep. A complete cycle typically lasts 90 to 110 minutes.

How do you know whether you’re getting enough rest? Experts say if you feel drowsy during the day or if you routinely fall asleep within five minutes of lying down, you’re probably among the sleep deprived. And while you may think you can go on living this way, your body cannot.

While we’re getting our shut-eye, cell growth and repair take place. Sleep also helps our bodies conserve energy and other resources that the immune system needs to fight infection and mount an effective attack should we get sick later. It’s also the time our brain’s frontal cortex shuts down; the lack of rest to this part of the brain affects our ability to control speech, access memory and solve problems.

Danger signs

When you don’t get enough rest, your body needs to build what experts call sleep debt. The debt accumulates over time and takes a physical and mental toll on your entire system.

Put another way: Chronic fatigue weakens your body’s immune system, leaving you more susceptible to various ailments. Extreme tiredness also elevates your stress level, further eroding your body’s defenses. In turn, all this aggravates your mental process, which can lead to confusion, memory loss, irritability and emotional highs and lows.

What’s more, sleeping shortages affect the body’s ability to regulate glucose and produce insulin, which can lead to diabetes, obesity and hypertension. A University of Chicago study found that a week of sleep deprivation made otherwise healthy test subjects take 40 percent longer than normal to regulate their blood sugar levels. Insulin production and the body’s response to insulin were also compromised, falling to 30 percent below normal.

And, if that’s not enough, chronic fatigue has been linked to another danger: automobile accidents. According to experts, 100,000 to 200,000 automobile accidents a year are caused by driver fatigue. The reasons are obvious: The fewer hours of rest you get, the greater your chances are of falling asleep at the wheel. Lack of sleep also makes you more susceptible to road rage.

Common causes

If you’re not sleeping well, it might be that you’re worried about something or that you play your “to-do” list in your head at night. Or, you might be overly tired because of your lifestyle choices: Drinking caffeine or alcohol before bed ranks among the most common reasons behind sleep deprivation.

Medication can also interfere with the body’s natural rhythms, causing restlessness and insomnia. An underlying medical condition, such as asthma, could also be keeping you awake counting sheep.

The good news is that sleep deprivation is preventable. But it probably means making some lifestyle changes.

Tips for catching your zzzz’s

  • Develop a relaxing, nightly ritual such as reading, listening to music or taking a bath.
  • Create an environment that is conducive to sleep—make it quiet, dark and comfortable.
  • Abstain from alcohol, caffeine and cigarettes at least two to three hours before you plan to turn in.
  • Exercise no later than three hours before bedtime.
  • Do not use bedtime to do work.
  • Do not overeat or undereat before bedtime.
  • Keep your bedroom cool.