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Sleep: The Third Pillar of Health

Lack of sleep can be the cause of many an ailment
Dr. W. Gifford-Jones

Sleep, it’s not the most exciting topic. But a report from Tufts University says sleep is the third pillar of health along with diet and activity. Besides, we spend a third of our lives sleeping, and if you sleep poorly, it can trigger a cascade of health problems.

José Ordovás, professor of nutrition at Tufts, says, “We can survive for extended periods without eating, but not for long without sleeping.”

Recent research suggests that we need sleep to remove toxins and metabolic trash from the brain. This trash may be related to Alzheimer’s disease. Short periods of sleep are also associated with greater risk of obesity, hypertension, diabetes, depression, and cardiovascular disease. And about one third of North Americans get less than the recommended seven hours of sleep.

A short sleep of five to six hours is associated with 30% increased risk of diabetes. And a study of 31,000 adults found that short sleep was linked to irregular heart rate and increased risk of heart failure.

In 2019, Ordovás and his colleagues reviewed the ultrasound tests and CT scans of the carotid arteries in the neck, femoral arteries in the groin, and those supplying oxygen to the heart’s muscle, of 4,000 people. They were looking for plaque that blocks the flow of blood.

Ordovás found that lower sleep time was associated with increased plaque (atherosclerosis) in all arteries. He concluded, “Our research shows that sleep disruption has long term and serious consequences.”

What about anger? A study at Iowa State University recruited 142 volunteers, half of whom were restricted from normal sleep for up to four hours for two nights. The other half continued with normal sleep. They were then given simple tests to solve while listening to annoying background music. The sleep restricted group became angrier and more frustrated at all levels of noise than the group who enjoyed normal sleep.

In another experiment at the University of California it was found that those who had less sleep were more aware of pain stimuli than those whose sleep pattern was normal. So, since our brain needs adequate rest, just like our muscles, what’s the solution for a good night’s sleep?

• Alcohol should be limited before bedtime as it’s a false friend and causes middle-of-the-night wakeups. It is more troublesome for women as they metabolize alcohol differently than men. The stimulating effects of caffeine should be reduced especially in the late afternoon. And smoking, too, is a stimulant.

• Make your bedroom friendly. The majority of people sleep better in a cool, but not cold room. Keep the room dark with dark shades. And turn your clock to the wall if you keep looking at it.

• Don’t eat a large meal before bedtime. It can cause heartburn. And drink less liquid in the evening. I’ve no scientific study to offer as proof, but several elderly readers have told me that taking 2,000 milligrams of vitamin C, regularly at bedtime, cured them of getting up to urinate. I’ve also recommended that a weighted blanket be tried. Always try these natural approaches before turning to pills.

• If you have a partner who snores, this requires great diplomacy. You might say, “Darling, I love you deeply, but we need separate beds, or rooms, to solve my insomnia.”

Getting rid of worry is always easier said than done. But, if the TV schedule suddenly announces the next movie is Dracula, turn it off. No one needs Dracula sucking blood from your neck at 2:00 AM.

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