How many hours of sleep do you get a night?
The CDC reports that the average adult requires seven hours of sleep a night to maintain good physical and mental health. Despite this, many people around the world regularly struggle to have a peaceful night’s rest — why is this?
Chronic insufficient sleep is connected to an array of medical conditions, like asthma, heart disease, chronic pain, difficulty losing weight, and a variety of mental health disorders.
Sleep is a fundamental part of human life — so why can it be so hard to achieve? To learn more about sleep and its impact on our health, we sat down with Dr. Jlyn Pritchard, D.O., a family care provider with a vested interest in everything sleep.
Q: Why is sleep so important?
Dr. Pritchard: Humans have always needed to sleep. At a base level, our bodies are designed to be active and move — then rest and recover. While every age group has its own unique sleep requirements, sleep seems to be the only time that our body, brain, and immune system are able to rest, restore, and rejuvenate new cells. Sleep impacts our growth, mental health, and our overall physical health
Q: How does chronic stress impact our sleep?
Dr. Pritchard: This is such a complex topic with so much research continually being done to better understand the relationship between stress and sleep. This is the explanation I tell my patients:
Thousands of years ago, there were many reasons we didn’t sleep through the night. We may have stayed up late to watch for predators or because our stomachs were growling if we hadn’t caught anything to eat. Women have also had historically poor sleep, as they were primarily responsible for raising children.
So, while we have evolved a lot as a species since our hunter-gatherer days, our sleep has not really changed much. When we get stress signals from our bodies, whether that be financial concerns, work-related anxiety, or from the very real stress from the COVID-19 pandemic, our sleep quality is impacted.
During chronic stress, our body releases a constant amount of stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine. Having these hormonal responses is what was able to keep us alive during primitive times — but now doesn’t serve us well when it comes to achieving a restful night of sleep.
Factors like sleep environment, learned behaviors, and food intake before bed all have a massive impact on our sleep quality.
Q: What are some of the common causes of poor sleep?
Dr. Pritchard: I like to explain to my patients that there are five main reasons we can have chronically poor sleep:
- Sleep habits — Exposure to screens and blue light before bed can impair our body’s natural circadian sleep rhythm. It is recommended that people avoid their screens for two hours prior to going to bed to help the body wind down for the day.
- Intake — It is so easy to underestimate the impact that alcohol, caffeine, and sugar have on our health and sleep. Something as simple as the timing of when we eat can impact sleep. I highly recommend that those who consume alcohol before bed limit their consumption to before 7 pm. Alcohol may make you feel sleepy, but it heavily impairs your sleep pattern and impacts your sleep quality.
- Disease — People with sleep disorders like insomnia and obstructive sleep apnea regularly struggle with getting quality sleep, but there are other conditions that impact sleep as well. Mental health conditions like anxiety fall into this category. If you are the type of person who lays down for sleep and your brain is like Tigger — go go go go — it can be very hard to turn it all off to get good rest.
- Environment — Creating the optimal sleep environment is a great way to improve sleep. Making small changes like adjusting your bedroom temperature, keeping screens out of the bedroom, and only using your bed for sleep and sex are helpful ways to improve sleep quality.
- Learned behaviors — For patients who have always suffered from poor sleep, it can be natural to think that there is no way to make changes. I recently had a patient have a breakdown in my office because “I’ve always been a bad sleeper, and I always will be.” I stress to my patients the importance of assessing their mental state and mental health while tackling their sleep habits because they are so deeply interconnected.
Q: What are some of the short-term and long-term effects of poor sleep?
Dr. Pritchard: There are a lot of symptoms and negative health impacts of poor sleep. For those who already have underlying sleep conditions (sleep apnea, insomnia, anxiety, and menopause), chronically insufficient sleep can aggravate the already existing symptoms. It’s a vicious cycle.
In the average healthy person, chronic poor sleep can result in the development of mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. A person with poor sleep habits may also experience chronic stress and reducing capacity to cope, which will worsen their symptoms further.
For people who are interested in losing weight, sleep health is essential. Studies have proven that having impaired sleep has an impact on weight loss and energy levels.
Q: How do you treat people with chronically bad sleep?
Dr. Pritchard: Personally, I take a conservative approach to rerouting learned behaviors and sleep habits. Rewiring the neurons to break harmful sleep habits is not easy work, so it takes time and effort to work through it. I have incorporated questions about sleep quality into every wellness visit with my patients to help them stay on top of their sleep habits and check in with their sleep quality.
I highly recommend that anyone struggling with their sleep seek help from their primary care providers. We are here to help — and you can make positive changes to your overall health by fixing your sleep habits!
Sleep has a massive impact on overall health, whether we like it or not. While it can be very easy to get swept up in modern life’s daily stressors and distractions, it’s important to prioritize sleep as part of your daily health routine. Just like we prioritize exercising and eating well, sleep is also a fundamental building block to good health that we should not forget.
Taking the first step towards better health is easy. Reach out to your Vera care center to schedule a wellness visit today!