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The Health Benefits of Getting a Good Night’s Sleep

Practical tips for overcoming what keeps us awake

“Don’t feel you have to wait to discuss sleep problems with your doctor until your next physical. Sleep is as important to a person’s health as diet and exercise. Getting the right amount of sleep can prevent many illnesses and can boost your immunity to disease,” said Dr. Sylvia Batong of CalvertHealth Primary Care.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, a third of adults report that they usually get less than the recommended amount of sleep.

A lot of people underestimate the amount of sleep they need. Adults need between 7-8 hours of sleep a night and if they are not getting those hours it means they have a sleep debt.

“Some people think they can go through the week getting five hours of sleep a night because they are going to make up for it on the weekend by sleeping 12 hours—but it doesn’t work that way,” said Dr. Batong, who is board certified in family medicine.

“A chronic sleep debt can lead to lots of problems: weakened immune system, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, obesity, high levels of stress hormone cortisol, depression and suicidal thoughts.” Plus, not getting enough sleep can lead to motor vehicle crashes and mistakes at work.

“Sleep is a very active time for the brain. While you are sleeping, your brain is consolidating things you’ve learned during the day, and moving things from short- to long-term memory,” said Dr. Batong.

Getting enough sleep is not a luxury—it is something people need for good health.

What Keeps Us Up

According to Dr. Batong, there are many factors that can interrupt sleep or cause insomnia, and adjusting one or more of these can make a difference in the quality of sleep you get.

Alcohol is a depressant, meaning that it depresses the central nervous system, and although initially after you drink you may feel sleepy, later in the night when alcohol wears off, sleep can be disrupted.

Caffeine takes many hours before it is no longer in your system—up to 10 hours for some people.

Chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer and arthritis by themselves do not cause sleeplessness, but many illnesses can cause pain, and medications can have side effects, which also contribute to not getting a restful night’s sleep.

Hormones such as testosterone and estrogen fluctuate throughout your lifetime. Sleep disruption is the most annoying symptom of perimenopause brought up by my patients.

Mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety affect sleep. For some people, antidepressant medications make them sleepy, for others these medications make them unable to sleep. So, time these medications accordingly.

Nicotine addiction can cause people to wake during the night due to withdrawal symptoms—this is true of tobacco products as well as e-cigarettes with added nicotine.

Pain is another common complaint of those who have trouble sleeping. Arthritis pain in shoulders, knees and other joints can disrupt sleep.

Prescription medications can affect sleep in many ways and it is best to consult your physician or pharmacist to ensure you are taking medications at the optimal time of day. Some asthma medications like albuterol can have a caffeine effect. Diuretics that cause frequent urination also can play a part in not getting a good night’s sleep.

Untreated depression/anxiety could account for a person’s inability to fall asleep, inability to stay asleep or sleeping too much over a long period of time.

The Downside to Sleep Aids

“Our bodies produce melatonin naturally, and although it doesn’t make us sleep it helps to prepare our bodies for sleep,” said Dr. Batong. If people want to supplement their natural melatonin, they should not take more than 3 mg at bedtime, and only on a short-term basis, according to Dr. Batong.

“Over-the-counter (OTC) products such as Tylenol®PM, Advil®PM and Unisom® can alter sleep architecture and they can mess up the tasks that the brain needs to be doing when sleeping,” Dr. Batong said. Any prescription meds for acute sleep problems should not be a long-term solution. Prescription medications, benzodiazepines, such as Valium and Xanax are particularly bad for the elderly because they hasten cognitive decline.

“Sleeping pills are a really bad way to deal with insomnia,” said Dr. Batong. “People that want to be healthy and invest in their health should not rely on sleeping pills as a solution to sleeplessness.”

Overcoming Poor Sleep Habits

“Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the single best way to deal with poor sleep habits,” said Dr. Batong. Finding a trained therapist, who can consult with you in person or via tele-visit or video conferencing, is extremely easy—you can find someone who you can relate to and who can provide the service that you think will work, it’s private and it is on your schedule.”

There are also free apps that you can download to help you map out a healthy way to deal with insomnia; search for CBT or CBTI.
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