Many times, when we’re running on a tight schedule or have a great deal of stress in our lives, the first thing to suffer is our sleeping pattern. After all, as long as you can keep the tiredness at bay with some caffeine, that should be enough, right? But sleep has a fundamental role in our health and wellbeing that we can’t overlook: it’s necessary for proper cognitive function, manageable moods, a healthy immune and cardiovascular system, and a well-regulated metabolism. In the long run, constantly skimping on sleep is extremely damaging and dangerous.
The brain requires sleep to perform maintenance on itself, so to speak, since it’s during this time that it strengthens certain neural connections and prunes unnecessary ones. This helps consolidate memory and plays an important part in learning, in addition to creativity and decision-making processes. A lack of sleep can impair brain function as much as alcohol, and it increases the risk of serious errors and accidents. Attention, short-term memory and executive function are all impaired in this condition. Sleep is therefore paramount to our safety when it comes to driving or working in critical settings. Additionally, too little sleep can dampen your mood and leave you feeling irritable, aggressive, anxious, or impulsive; it worsens pre-existing mood disorders as well, and as such it may induce or enhance depressive or manic symptoms in these cases.
Your body also undergoes a healing and reparation process during sleep that affects all cells and tissues, and the body clears out toxins at a greater rate than when awake. Consequently, chronic sleep deprivation is linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, and a lowered immune function. On top of that, it increases your levels of ghrelin (the hormone that stimulates hunger) and lowers leptin (which signals fullness) at the same time that it impairs insulin function, setting the stage for weight gain, high blood sugar and even diabetes. In developing children, a lack of sleep also affects the growth hormone, causing an stunting effect, and, for women, it may have a negative effect on fertility.
If you find yourself unable to get at least 6 hours of sleep per night, it is recommended that you introduce some lifestyle changes such as avoiding screens during nighttime or using a color filter on your devices, exercising early during the day, cutting or eliminating caffeine and/or alcohol consumption, keeping a regular schedule and improving your surroundings in terms of comfort and quietness. You may also want to try natural options such as soothing herbal teas, or melatonin, a hormone produced by the pineal gland (with your doctor’s support, since dosage varies greatly from one person to another). If none of these help, you might have to ask your doctor for a written prescription, but this is only recommended in severe cases and should be handled with care.
Dr. Patricia M.D.