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Getting Enough or Too Much Sleep?

by Ellen Griffin
Well Journal

The secret to a good night's sleep is no secret at all: Listen to what your body is telling you.

The bad news is that you're probably getting less sleep than your grandparents did. The good news: You don't have to feel guilty about it.

While the U.S. pumps about $16 billion annually into bridging the gap between the 6.22 hours of nightly sleep most of us average and the eight hours that experts recommend, new research shows eight may be more than enough.

People who routinely sleep only six to seven hours on average have a longer life expectancy than those who get eight or more, researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) recently reported in the Archives of General Psychiatry (Feb 15, 2002).

In a six-year study of 1.1 million American adults, UCSD Psychiatry Professor Daniel F. Kripke, M.D., and his colleagues found that subjects who slept seven hours a night lived the longest -- and that people who sleep eight hours or more are likely to die at a younger age than those who sleep less.

Does that mean too much sleep shortens your life span? More research is needed to determine whether less sleep will lead to a longer life, Kripke told Well Journal. "But people who sleep five, six or seven hours a night without excessive sleepiness should be reassured that there is no safety risk in not sleeping eight hours," says the doctor.

Standing by the standard

"Sleep less" is not the message that makers of sleeping pills and mattresses necessarily want you to hear. The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) issued a public critique of the Kripke article, citing flaws in sampling and conclusions. The foundation continues to recommend up to nine hours of sleep each night.

Who, then, should you listen to? If your waking hours are marked by fatigue, difficulty concentrating and a generally irritable mood, your body is probably telling you it needs more -- or better quality -- sleep. Listen to it.

Signs that lack of sleep is putting your health or safety at risk are:

bulletLethargy or low energy.
bulletShort-term memory problems.
bulletDifficulty concentrating.
bulletIrritability, depression or anxiety.
bulletDecreased libido.
bulletDaytime napping.

By skipping sleep we're suffering more than an occasional memory lapse, attention deficit or bad mood. Sleep is needed for the healthy operation of the nervous, respiratory and immune systems.

Unrested individuals pose a safety hazard to the extent their fatigue impairs their judgment or physical reaction time. This is especially true on the highway.

A sleep-deprived person drives as poorly (or worse) than someone who's fully intoxicated, causing 100,000 motor vehicle accidents and 1,500 deaths per year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Lack of sleep has been implicated in such large-scale accidents as the Exxon Valdez oil spill and Three Mile Island nuclear plant mishap, according to the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research (NCSDR).

While serious health issues like sleep apnea, narcolepsy, depression or restless leg syndrome may underlie poor sleep, simple lifestyle factors are more likely to blame, the NCSDR says. And those are within your control.

Take steps to invite sleep

Start by taking an objective look at your habits, diet and environment. Keep stimulants like caffeine, sugar and nicotine out of your system. Exercise daily -- but not within a few hours of bedtime. Align your sleeping schedule with natural darkness and dawn, using dark window coverings to keep bright lights and sunshine from disrupting your sleep. You may even want to spend your first 15 minutes each morning facing the sun, to let the power of nature set your biological clock, say sleep experts at Stanford University's SleepWell.

Stick to a regular sleep schedule each night, avoiding "debts" that you'll make up on the weekend. If you must nap, keep to a consistent amount and time.

Talk with your doctor about any prescriptions or over-the-counter medications that may be interfering with your sleep. Likely culprits are beta blockers, corticosteroids and many asthma medications.

Inexpensive changes to your bedroom can go a long way toward improving your sleep. Ban your briefcase and television from the room, install room-darkening window treatments. If you can't eliminate disruptive sounds, mask them with a white noise machine.

Nutritionists recommend calcium-rich foods before bedtime (that warm glass of milk really works), or high-carbohydrate bedtime snacks that increase release of serotonin, a calming brain chemical.

But don't eat a heavy meal before bedtime, and don't rely on alcohol to help you nod off -- you'll pay later with fitful sleep or awakenings.

No single Rx for sleep

When underlying problems cause restless nights, let the professionals help. Health practitioners can address arthritis pain, menopausal hot flashes and frequent trips to the bathroom that interrupt sleep. A weight loss expert can help you shed the extra pounds that are a common cause of snoring. Psychotherapy or behavioral therapy can tackle anxieties and stresses, and provide relaxation training.

Try to hold the line at turning to your pharmacist for help -- there's a strong potential for dependency or addiction to sleeping medications.

Do explore alternative and complementary therapies for sleep solutions. Meditation and yoga are proven relaxation aids, and teas with lemon balm and chamomile can induce a restful state.

Simple stretching can help, too. "The body becomes very tense throughout the day," says Bradly P. Jacobs, M.D., Medical Director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. "Fifteen to twenty minutes of stretching can help release this physical tension, as well as emotional stress."

In the herb and plant category, valerian tea, tincture or pills taken an hour before bedtime can help, Jacobs says. "With the recent concern of liver toxicity potentially associated with kava kava," he says, "I would suggest avoiding this herb until the FDA concludes its investigation."

Melatonin supplements can help reset your sleep/wake clock following a time shift from jet lag, and appears to help the elderly with insomnia. Before opting for routine hormone supplements, however, check with your doctor. Dr. Jacobs cautions avoid products derived from animal pineal glands, to avoid infectious agents.

Last, you can easily learn such brief relaxation techniques as deep breathing and paced respiration to help you focus and keep intruding thoughts at bay. In other words, count sheep.

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* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This information is nutritional in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. This notice is required by the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

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Last modified: June 28, 2015