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The Perils of Sleep Debt?

What, really, is the downside of not getting enough sleep? Is it just an inconvenience, or are there real potential health consequences?

Answer (Published 11/22/2011)

There's no doubt that sleep deprivation is widespread, at least in the United States, and that it can present serious risks to health. In addition to the obvious downsides such as increasing the risk of accidents caused by fatigue, not getting enough sleep is a risk factor for weight gain, perhaps by disrupting production of the appetite regulating hormones ghrelin and leptin. Sleep deprivation can also disrupt the body's regulation of blood sugar, which can increase risk of type 2 diabetes. And laboratory studies suggest that not getting adequate rest may also elevate levels of stress hormones, boost blood pressure, and increase inflammation  - all changes that may lead to disease later in life.

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To get your full allotment of sleep, I suggest you heed the advice of Dr. Rubin Naiman, Ph.D., a sleep specialist at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. Naiman advises paying off any sleep debt you might be carrying and resolving to routinely get to bed early enough so that you can get the full amount of sleep you need. In this way, he says you can eliminate or significantly reduce dependence on an alarm clock, which artificially shortens the natural sleep cycle. If you still feel the need for an alarm, he recommends considering some of the newer, gentler devices, such as dawn simulators that awaken you gradually with increasing light. A clock radio set at low volume to a station that plays soothing music is another option.

So how do you get to sleep earlier? Don't think of it as a difficult task that takes great discipline. Try going to bed a bit earlier than usual each night until you're where you want to be. Dr. Naiman also advises practicing a mindful approach to sleep: when you get into bed, focus on the night's sleep, not the morning awakening.  I love sleeping and consequently find going to bed relatively early no more difficult than sitting down to a delicious meal. It's your attitude - not acquiring some steely resolve - that matters most. Simply embracing and appreciating sleep is the best way to get enough of it.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

More information on the use of alarm clocks: Alarm Clocks: Alarmed in the A.M.?

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