How have you been sleeping lately? Although we recognize the importance of lifestyle to our lifelong health, many people forget that sleep is also part of this healthy lifestyle. Your sleep — or lack thereof — is one of the most important factors in your health both today and throughout your life.
World Sleep Day was observed on March 13th in order to promote awareness of sleep’s role in mental and physical health. Unlike other holidays, the purpose of this event is to help you learn more about the ways you can sleep better and achieve the optimal health that you deserve all year long.
World Sleep Day: Recognizing the Importance of Sleep
Friday, March 13th was a day dedicated to recognizing the importance of sleep, not just to your personal health but to global health overall. Even as our globe is focused on the dangers of pandemic viral disease, we should take measures to remain as healthy as possible.
This event involves global experts from a variety of disciplines, including scientists, health care professionals and people who suffer from sleep disorders. Together, these experts put together a set of ten recommendations that can help us to achieve better sleep.
Sleep is not just important to your personal health. People who get better sleep are more productive and more capable of solving problems. Sleep makes us less likely to get into accidents in our daily commute and on the job. In addition, sleeping more will decrease our usage of fuel and electricity, making this a green choice.
The Ten Commandments of Sleep
The people behind this event have compiled a list of ten “commandments” for having a healthy sleep life:
1. Establish a regular sleep schedule, going to bed and waking at the same time every day.
2. Avoid napping, limiting yourself to a maximum of 45 minutes of sleep during the day.
3. Drink alcohol only lightly (if at all!) in the four hours before your bedtime and abstain from nicotine altogether.
4. Stay away from foods and drinks that contain caffeine in the six hours before you go to bed.
5. Although light snacks before bed can help you to sleep, you should avoid spicy and sweet foods in the evening and night.
6. Get plenty of exercise during the day, but not before bed.
7. Make your bed or sleeping area as comfortable and calming as possible.
8. Keep your bedroom ventilated and at a comfortable temperature.
9. Avoid noise and lights that may interfere with falling and staying asleep.
10. Use your bed only for sleep and sex, avoiding reading, television and work in this area.
These tips are also known as “sleep hygiene,” a phrase that refers to behaviors and lifestyle choices that help to promote healthy sleep. Good sleep hygiene is the most important factor in your sleep quality and quantity.
Why is Sleep Important?
Why do we need a special day dedicated to sleep? Although implementing sleep hygiene can require change and sacrifice, it will pay off in better overall health. People who sleep better function better throughout the day and feel better as well. In addition, there are other benefits to sleep.
When we have slept well, we perform better in cognitive and physical tasks throughout the day. This leads to working better and getting more exercise in addition to simply feeling more alert and happy. In fact, sleep has been found to be crucial in forming and storing memories.
In addition, sleep appears to be a time when our bodies complete crucial “housekeeping” tasks. Our DNA is repaired from the stresses of the day, which reduces stress on tissues. This is believed to be the reason that people who get enough sleep have a lower risk of diabetes and heart disease.
In addition, our brains remove harmful waste products when we slumber, helping us to be at our personal best while lowering the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
Sleep: Important Every Day of the Year
For your own physical and mental health, it is important to get the sleep that you need not just on one day in March, but every night of the year. Experts recommend getting seven to nine hours every night of uninterrupted sleep time for optimal health.
If you struggle with insomnia or other common sleep disorders, good sleep hygiene is the first step to a healthier life. Although the ten commandments of sleep may seem basic, they are often successful in helping people to get the rest that they need. Keeping solid sleep habits is one of the most important factors in a healthy lifestyle.
A great deal has been written about the circadian rhythm and the role it plays in health and disease. However, this is not the only internal clock that governs human health: We also have a circannual rhythm, an annual clock that measures the time of year.
In ways we are just beginning to understand, our bodies adjust our circadian clocks and other aspects of health based on the season. According to new research, these annual rhythms may affect our health more than previously believed.
What is the Circannual Rhythm?
Most of us are familiar with circannual rhythms, at least in the animal world. To some extent, all animals have some sort of annual clock. A well-known example is that birds fly south when the weather turns cold. In addition, many mammals display behaviors that are based on an annual rhythm, such as hibernation or seasonal weight gain.
Some of these annual behaviors are cued by the environment. For instance, birds migrate south in response to changes in temperature and light levels, independent of internal clocks. They seek warmer and brighter places until the seasons change back once again. However, some of these behaviors, such as annual mating practices, occur even in controlled laboratory conditions in the absence of external cues.
All vertebrates show some kind of circannual rhythm, including humans. However, very little research has been dedicated to these rhythms. Most discussion of human internal clocks focuses on the 24-hour circadian rhythm or the monthly clocks involved in reproduction. Thus, there is a good chance that the circannual rhythm and the clocks that govern it affect our daily health in ways we do not yet recognize.
Annual Rhythms and Health
A growing number of studies are looking at how non-circadian rhythms such as the circannual rhythm can affect our health. For example, many doctors have observed that human schoolchildren gain weight more quickly during the summer. This happens not just in the perpetually overweight United States but even in slimmer and trimmer Japan.
Although part of this phenomenon is likely due to less structure in one’s days during the summer holiday, there also is some evidence that summer weight gain is natural in humans. After all, many mammals increase fat stores during the warm months to prepare for the long, hungry winter. There may be a physiological mechanism that increases appetite or increases fat storage when the days grow long and warm.
In addition, there seems to be some sort of annual timing involved in cerebrovascular disease such as stroke. People all over the world are more likely to have a stroke or other serious cerebrovascular event during the winter, suggesting some sort of annual clock in involved in the health of our brains. Could we lower stroke risk by changing certain lifestyle factors during the winter? Are there other diseases that are affected not just by our risk factors but by the time of year?
Although the prevalence of stroke and other diseases in the winter may be partially due to an increase in stress and a decrease in exercise associated with the season, understanding more about this connection may help contribute to disease prevention. The human brain appears to have specific areas dedicated to maintaining these circannual rhythms. These areas of the brain are also involved in serious neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, which is believed in part to be a disorder of internal circadian clocks.
Understanding more about circannual rhythms may help us to more effectively treat diseases that have some sort of annual or seasonal rhythm. However, a great deal more study is needed in order to accomplish this. Although we know much about how our health varies throughout the year, we don’t understand many of the biochemical mechanisms that underlie the circannual rhythm nor how to effectively maximize our health using this clock.
Future Health Implications
Our modern life does not support healthy circadian rhythms and likely does not support a healthy circannual rhythm either. How can we maintain a regulated annual rhythm when we are traveling regularly between different areas and climates? What about people who work nights or other unusual shifts that keep them from the light and temperature cues that indicate season? Are circannual rhythms different in people who live in temperate areas versus those who live in a climate without defined seasons?
As with the circadian rhythm, contemporary lifestyles pose a huge challenge to maintaining a regulated circannual rhythm. However, it is clear that protecting our internal clocks is important to our health and can even impact disease risk. Because so many of our body processes rely on timing, we are at a huge disadvantage when we ignore our innate rhythms and the clocks that govern them.
Without vision, we would miss out on a variety of experiences. We would have trouble navigating our world and performing certain careers. There are also intangible elements of sight that would be lost, such as seeing the faces of loved ones or appreciating a piece of fine art. However, we are beginning to discover that are our eyes are not only important for sight alone. According to several recent studies on chronobiology and sight, our eyes also play a role in helping to set our internal clocks.
The Many Roles of the Eye
Our eyes have specialized structures known as rods and cones that perceive light levels and send messages to our brains regarding the world around us. These messages are passed from the retina to the brain, where they become what we perceive as vision.
However, these are not the only specialized cells in the eye. We also have specialized structures that detect the general level of light as well as the wavelength of this light. These structures send this information to a very different area of the brain, the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) of the hypothalamus. This helps our brain to adjust and set our internal clocks so our sleep schedule mirrors that of the world around us. Messages about the time of day are then sent throughout the body so our organ systems can synchronize.
Although our circadian rhythms are innate, we still need to align our clocks with those of the world around us. Our eyes help to keep our internal clocks in sync with our schedules so we can live our best lives. In addition, a growing body of evidence suggests that we are at higher risk of a variety of diseases without well-regulated internal clocks.
New Research on Chronobiology and Sight
Our eyes were clearly made to do a great deal more than merely help us to see. They also act as a sort of light meter, helping us to adjust our circadian rhythm to the world around us. This is important because new research suggests that the human circadian rhythm is not naturally a 24-hours rhythm.
For reasons that scientists do not fully understand, our brains do not naturally work on a 24-hour sleep-wake cycle. In order to comfortably live on such a schedule, we must rely on light cues that tell our brain how to adjust.
How do people with blindness or failing eyes adjust? Several studies have suggested that this is a major health issue for people with vision problems. More than 70 percent of people with blindness have non-24 hour sleep disorder, a condition in which their circadian rhythms do not line up with the 24-hour day of our planet.
Circadian Challenges for People with Reduced Vision
People with blindness, vision problems, and other sight disabilities are more prone to a variety of problems with their internal clocks. People with common vision issues such as myopia are even more prone to circadian disorders.
Myopia, also known as nearsightedness, is a common problem. People with this sight disorder have trouble seeing things that are far away. It is almost always corrected with glasses or contacts. The rates of myopia have been increasing sharply over the past decades, but this is generally not considered a public concern. Because myopia is most commonly treated with a simple pair of glasses, it is not considered a health hazard.
Myopia is not generally considered a big deal due to its mild effects and how easily it is treated. However, several new studies suggest that it can affect the way you sleep. People with myopia have higher rates of melatonin, a hormone most commonly associated with sleep. This suggests that their eyes are not performing as well in their secondary role of circadian entrainment. In short, because of the relation ship between chronobiology and sight, people with this common sight disorder may not be managing their internal clocks as well as others.
Sleep, Clocks, and Health
Why is it important to keep your circadian rhythm on track? A growing body of evidence suggests that doing so is crucial to our health and well-being. People who have circadian disorders are more likely to develop cancer, metabolic disease and even heart attacks and strokes over their lifetime. In addition, our internal clocks help us to sleep better and thus to feel better on a daily basis.
If you have a vision disorder of any kind, even something as simple as myopia, you may need a little help to keep your internal clocks on track. Consider simple lifestyle measures such as getting plenty of light throughout your day or taking a melatonin supplement at night. Even a few simple changes may help you to keep your clocks ticking on time and enjoy a well-regulated sleep schedule.
Sleep apnea is one of the most common sleep disorders in the Western world. Although it is common, it can have devastating health effects. Recent studies have linked sleep apnea to a wide range of diseases, from daytime fatigue to high blood pressure and even cardiovascular disease. A new study linking sleep apnea and erectile dysfunction suggests that it also may affect even the most intimate parts of a man’s life.
Erectile Dysfunction: A Common and Embarrassing Problem
Many men place a great deal of importance on their virility and sexual performance. As a result, erectile dysfunction and similar problems can be difficult to speak about, even to a doctor. Although it is often kept a secret, erectile dysfunction is a very common problem.
Also known as ED, erectile dysfunction is a disorder in which men have trouble either getting an erection or keeping one for the desired amount of time. In order for it to be considered a disorder, the erection issues must occur often enough to cause issues with keeping a healthy sex life. Most men will experience this disorder in their lifetime. Although it is more common in older men, around one out of four younger men also have this issue.
ED is generally believed to be caused by either a lack of blood flow to the penis or low testosterone. There are multiple risk factors, such as:
- anxiety about sexual performance
- issues in one’s relationship
- cigarette smoking
- unhealthy diet and exercise habits
- excessive drinking or recreational drug use
As these risk factors suggest, lifestyle factors have a huge effect on erection strength. New research suggests that sleep may play a particularly important role. People who have sleep apnea, a common sleep disorder, appear to have a much higher rate of developing erectile dysfunction.
Links Between Sleep Apnea and Erectile Dysfunction
Erectile dysfunction is often a sign of more serious systemic disease — in particular, it can be a sign of cardiovascular problems. Because sleep apnea can increase the chances of cardiovascular disease, it is not surprising that there may be a link to erectile dysfunction. However, several studies have indicated that there is a connection between the two illnesses even independent of their relationship to heart disease.
As far back as 2009, a study suggested that erectile dysfunction and sleep apnea are independently linked. A new study backs this up, showing a solid reason for the link between the two illnesses.
Around half of people with sleep apnea also have erectile dysfunction. According to new research, low testosterone may be the reason. A study took a group of men and subjected half of them to days of progressive sleep deprivation. They underwent extensive blood work along the way. It was found that the men who lost out on sleep had progressively lower testosterone. However, as soon as they were able to get high quality sleep, their testosterone levels rebounded back to normal.
Because testosterone is the main hormonal driver of male sexuality, the low testosterone caused by sleep apnea will almost certainly contribute to erectile dysfunction. Sleep may be one of the most important lifestyle factors in maintaining healthy sexuality, not just for men but for women as well.
Treating Sleep Apnea Naturally
Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder, but there are many sleep issues that can compromise your slumber and thus your health. If you snore at night and wake up feeling like you aren’t rested, you should talk to your doctor about getting tested and treated for sleep apnea.
The most common treatment is a CPAP machine, which keeps your airway at positive pressure so you do not snore or stop breathing while you sleep. However, there are several natural remedies that are popular as well, including:
- Losing weight (even a 5 to 10 pound weight loss can help!).
- Avoiding smoking, drinking alcohol, and using other recreational drugs before bedtime.
- Keeping a humidifier running in your bedroom, as this has been shown to help with both snoring and apnea.
- Sleeping in a different position.
- Taking supplements with magnesium and vitamin D, as many people with sleep apnea are deficient in both of these.
- Considering taking 5-HTP, a serotonin precursor. People with sleep apnea often have low serotonin, so these supplements may be important in treating and mitigating the disorder.
Getting enough sleep is one of the most important things you can do to maintain both your sexual health and health in the rest of your body. There are many natural ways to support a healthy lifestyle and wellness throughout your life.