Sleep and Disease Risk

sleep and disease risk

We all know sleep is important, but do you know how important? According to the American Sleep Association, 35% of adults report that they get less than 7 hours of sleep per night with 7 hours being the minimum recommended sleep duration for adults. An an estimated 70 million Americans have ongoing problems with sleep. 

Unfortunately, not enough sleep has a bigger impact beyond making us feel tired and cranky. Our mental and physical performance suffers, and even more importantly, it puts others at risk as well. Lack of sleep is a major contributor to motor vehicle and work-related accidents resulting in serious injury or death. It is also estimated that 100,000 deaths occur each year in hospitals in the United Stated due to medical errors. Sleep deprivation has been shown to be a major contributor to these deaths.  

Poor sleep, Metabolic Syndrome, and Cardiovascular Disease

Inadequate sleep has been shown to promote excess calorie intake, especially at times when your body is not prepared to eat. It has also been shown that the body tends to conserve energy when periods of sleep and periods of wakefulness are initiated at time that are not in sync with biological preferences. Recently research has shown that poor sleep is linked to insulin resistance and disrupted glucose metabolism.

The inflammatory effects of sleep deprivation is a significant contributing factor to the development of heart disease and incidence of stroke. Melatonin, which is a hormone that is produced before and during sleep, is important to fluid balance, nitrogen balance, and acid-base balance in your body, the imbalance of these things has been linked to hypertension and heart disease. 

Sleep loss and mood

Research has linked insomnia to poor mood, increased use of health care resources, decreased quality of life, and increased cardiovascular risk factors (as discussed above). People who are chronically sleep deprived show increased cortisol levels (stress hormone) and decreased immune function. Sleep loss has been linked to depression (both contributing to and making it worse) and decreased cognitive function. Poor sleep quality can make many mood disorders such as bipolar disorder anxiety, worse. Furthermore, chronic sleep issues can actually increase your risk of developing a mood disorder. 

Better sleep habits

As you can see, sleep is vitally important to our health. The first step to getting better sleep is to know and understand your current sleep habits. Many fitness trackers are able to track sleep and while they aren't 100% accurate, they can give you great insight into what is actually happening when you think you are or aren't sleeping. If you don't have a fitness tracker to track sleep, try keeping a sleep journal. This can be as simple as writing down when you went to bed, what time you woke up, and a few details about how you are feeling (well-rested, awake all night, groggy, etc). After you have this valuable information, it's time to improve your sleep!

The National Institutes of Health recommends that most adults get 7-8 hours of sleep each night. While this is a great place to start, some people may require more depending on their age and unique situation. For example, endurance athletes should add about one minute per mile they run each week. So if you are running 40 miles per week you should be sleeping for about 8 hours and 40 minutes. Other factors that affect the amount of sleep you may require are age, illness or injury, medication use, time of year, or heavy labor and exercise. 

7 Things you can do to improve your sleep

  • Keep your bedroom as dark as possible. Living in Alaska, we know that can be a huge challenge in the summer, but this could be critical to your health. You can get relatively inexpensive blackout curtains at most stores or online. It's also important to remove any gadgets that emit a light from their screen. Yep, even your phone. 
  • Avoid blue light. This light comes from televisions, computers, cell phones, and tablets. Turn screens off about one hour before bedtime. If you have an iPhone you can set "Nightshift" mode to come on automatically which reduces the amount of blue light your screen emits.
  • Keep a regular schedule. Heading to bed and waking up at the same time every day can help maintain a good sleep pattern. Your body will start to know when it's time to wind down and head to bed, making it easier to fall asleep. If you set an alarm for the same time every morning, you may soon find yourself waking up a few minutes before your alarm goes off. 
  • Decrease your caffeine intake. As we age, how quickly our body metabolizes caffeine decreases. So while in your 20s you may have been able to drink coffee all day and still get in your sleep, you may find that in your 50s a cup of coffee at 1pm keeps you awake all night. Try and consume your last caffeinated beverage no less than 6 hours before bedtime, 8 hours is even better. 
  • Eat your last large meal 2 hours before bedtime. A large meal can make it more difficult to fall asleep, so try and give yourself a few hours to digest before heading to bed. This doesn't mean that you can't have a snack before you go to sleep, just keep it small and light. Also, pay attention to how much liquid you consume as bedtime approaches. Drinking liquids too close to bedtime can cause more sleep interrupting bathroom trips. 
  • Avoid vigorous evening exercise. Vigorous exercise can cause your cortisol levels to spike which acts as a stimulant. If you need an evening exercise routine try and stick with yoga, stretching, or after dinner walk. 
  • Keep your room cool. Your body naturally cools off throughout the evening and as you fall asleep, so keeping your room cool jumpstarts this process and helps you to fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. 

Help! I still can't sleep

If you have tried the above suggestions but still find yourself unable to sleep, it is definitely worth it to consult a practitioner. Because sleep is so important, addressing issues surrounding it are critical to your health. A practitioner can help you look at what might be going on with your body that is interfering with your sleep. 

Certain conditions such as chronic pain, restless leg syndrome, muscle cramps, or unstable blood sugar can also make it difficult to get to sleep. These might be both a cause of and a contributing factor to poor sleep. A qualified practitioner can help you manage these factors and improve sleep and overall health at the same time. 



American Sleep Association (nd) Sleep and Sleep Disorder Statistics.

Fernandez-Mendoza, J. et al. (2017) Impact of the Metabolic Syndrome on Mortality is Modified by Objective Short Sleep Duration. Journal of the American Heart Association, 6.

Khan, Meena S. et al. (2017) The Effects of Insomnia and Sleep Loss on Cardiovascular Disease. Sleep Medicine Clinics , 12 (2),  167 - 177.

McHill, A. W., and Wright, K. P. Jr (2017) Role of sleep and circadian disruption on energy expenditure and in metabolic predisposition to human obesity and metabolic disease. Obesity Reviews, 18, 15–24. doi: 10.1111/obr.12503.