I’ve been saying it for years: the answer to most of our chronic disease isn’t drugs, it’s changing the way we live. Study after study shows that lifestyle changes nearly always trump drug treatment for our biggest health problems like heart disease and diabetes and now there’s yet another study to add to the list.
Researchers at the University of Helsinki in Finland have just given us one more reason to make sure we get enough sleep. Their study found that just one week of insufficient sleep raises your cholesterol. And more than that, it actually changes how the genes that regulate cholesterol work.
Sleep isn’t self-indulgent, it’s vital to your health
We’ve known for some time that lack of sleep makes you gain weight. We’ve known that it causes system-wide inflammation. Not long ago researchers showed that it causes beta-amyloid plaque to build up in your brain, just like it does in Alzheimer’s brains. The list of ill effect that come from not sleeping enough gets longer each month.
This study just underlines what was already obvious—that lack of sleep seems to affect every system in the body, and not in a good way. But the insight into how sleep affects your genes is new and may be the most concerning fact of all.
For this study, the researchers looked at people both in a sleep lab and in the real world. In both cases, they found the same effects—those who didn’t get enough sleep had higher total cholesterol levels but lower levels of HDL ( or “good” cholesterol) than those who did. Moreover, the genes that control your cholesterol levels were less active in sleep-deprived people. So skipping sleep isn’t just making you tired and unfocused, it might actually be changing the way your genes behave.
That’s pretty serious stuff. If knowing that lack of sleep can lead to diabetes wasn’t enough to get you to bed earlier, this study should be.
The REAL reason we don’t get enough sleep
Past studies have shown that lack of sleep or poor quality sleep affect your metabolism. They raise your blood pressure. They raise your blood sugar. They cause weight gain. So why aren’t we getting enough sleep?
Younger adults may be slacking on sleep due to the pressures of having kids—when you live with children, it may seem like after bedtime is the only time you can really be an adult. Work pressures can also be a factor, especially for more mature adults. Teenagers may be crunched for time to just be themselves too, between school and home responsibilities. For “senior citizens,” all of these factors may be an issue, along with other elements such as medication side effects and chronic pain.
All these things can and do influence how much sleep we get—or don’t get. But the real reasons we’re chronically sleep deprived boil down to two simple things:
1) We try to cram too many things into our days, and
2) While medicine underscores how important sleep is, society tells us that getting enough sleep makes us wimps.
Together, these two things nearly guarantee that most of us get far less sleep than we really need. This in turn leads to metabolism gone haywire, a depressed immune system, a brain that doesn’t function at full capacity, and eventually to disease.
That’s a steep price to pay for bragging rights or more Facebook time.
Make time for sleep in your schedule
For many of us, a 24-hour day just doesn’t seem like enough time to do everything we need or want to do. We’ve come to a point where we value quantity over quality to a completely unhealthy degree. We’re busy from the moment we open our eyes till long past the time we should have fallen into bed—with work, sports, school activities for those of us who have kids, shopping—the list goes on and on. And if it makes it onto that list at all, sleep is usually the last item to get attention.
But here’s the thing: we have our priorities all out of whack. Sleep—adequate sleep, not four or five hours—should be right up there with food and shelter as one of the basic necessities of life. Most of us wouldn’t skip lunch and dinner day after day in order to fit more in more work, or any unnecessary activities. So why are we willing to skip sleep? The simple fact is that society tells us all these other things—work, school, Netflix—are more important, and that if we choose sleep over activities, well, we’re just wimpy.
Of course nothing could be farther from the truth.
If you think you don’t have time to fit a solid eight hours per night in, I promise: you do. The secret is to simplify your life—to eliminate some of the things in your schedule that take up your time but really aren’t necessary. And sometimes, it means using the biggest word in the English language:
Learning how to say “no” is one of the most positive things you can do for yourself. Simply saying “no” to things you don’t really have time for can go a long way toward simplifying your life and freeing up time you never thought you’d get back. It may be difficult at first, but with practice it gets easier. And it not only creates more time in your schedule, it can eliminate a surprising amount of stress too.
So here’s a suggestion: at the beginning of each day—or each night before you go to bed—make a list of what you want to accomplish during the day. Estimate how much time it takes—and be brutally honest. Don’t write “30 minutes” on your list if in your heart you know it will take you an hour and a half. Include the things you have to do and the things you just want to do also.
At the end of your list, in great big capital letters write “SLEEP.” And make sure you leave a full 8 hours to do it in. Now, look your list over and add the time up. Is there enough time in the day to do it all? If not, go back through and reexamine each item. Ask yourself, “How important is this? Is it a necessity?” Think about it hard. Be honest with yourself. Is it important to you, or to someone else? If the answer is “someone else,” can you say no? Or put it off till another day?
You’d be surprised how often the answer is “yes.” If it is, mark the item off the list, until you do have enough hours in the day, including eight hours of sleep. Do this every day. With practice, you’ll find it becomes second nature. And you’ll be amazed at how much time you really have for sleep.