Sleep may be low on your list of priorities as you put work or entertainment first.

Switching from daylight saving time to central time, or the other way around, makes us aware of how even small changes in sleep habits have a profound effect on how we feel.  In fact, some authorities say sleep is the most under-valued contributor to optimum health and performance. 

            Sleep may be low on your list of priorities as you put work or entertainment first.  Before the invention of the light bulb, people slept 10 hours at night going to bed at dark.  Now Americans average 6.9 hours of sleep on a weeknight and 7.5 hours of sleep on a weekend, according to the National Sleep Foundation.  Over seventy percent of Americans report having one or more persistent symptoms of sleep deprivation. Those who do sleep well are generally happier and healthier.

            It turns out that getting adequate sleep does more than just keep us from feeling tired and yawning all the time.  The Lancet, the world’s leading independent general medical journal, reported extensive research on the effect of sleep deprivation.  It was found that too little sleep can accelerate aging by hindering metabolism and hormone production that is similar to the effects of aging and early stages of diabetes. Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and memory loss can be brought on earlier by chronic sleep loss. 

            It was found that sleep debts are somewhat like stress.  Just one week of sleep deprivation altered subjects’ hormone levels and their capacity to metabolize carbohydrates.

If you are like most people, you have to keep an eye on your weight.  Americans spend over $35 billion each year on weight-loss products when adequate sleep might be more effective.  Why?  The trend toward obesity not only matches the advent of fast and processed foods, it just happens to match our trend toward voluntary sleep restriction.  (Maybe we are staying up late eating junk food)  Sleep loss is a double whammy for anyone looking to shed pounds because of the two hormones, ghrelin and leptin.  They are the hunger and appetite regulators of the body.  Chronic lack of sleep increases ghrelin, making you feel hungry when you don’t really need to eat, and decreases leptin, urging you to keep eating although you have already had all the food you need.  In addition to eating a nutritious diet, and regular exercise, getting enough good quality sleep is extremely valuable in maintaining your ideal weight. 

During sleep the hormone melatonin, which is secreted only in darkness, signals your entire body to shift from daytime mode to nighttime healing mode.  In addition to that, it stimulates the nighttime release of growth hormone.  Growth hormone is vital for normal development of children, and it is beneficial for adults as well.  It makes you feel and look younger.  That is why you hear about professional body builders and athletes who sometimes risk injecting synthetic growth hormone in high amounts.  It makes your bones stronger, increases muscle mass, helps your body lose fat, increases protein synthesis, and stimulates maintenance of all internal organs.  It also supports your pancreas’ ability to make insulin and stimulates your immune system. .  Some people take HGH as a supplement.  I would hesitate to do this because hormones are powerful substances which, in unnatural amounts can do harm.  They are also expensive.  It makes more sense just to get your sleep.

If you are having problems getting a good’s night’s sleep, it is worthwhile to take some conscious steps to improve your chances.  Some suggestions made by the sleep experts are to listen to relaxation tapes or CDs.  Some are progressive relaxation exercises where the speaker takes you through each part of your body releasing muscle tension.  Personally, when I use them, I sleep better and wake up totally rested.  Learning to sleep on your back can help; body parts are not scrunched up as when side sleeping.  You can also get CDs of relaxation music, nature sounds like waterfalls or ocean waves. One is even of a cat purring.

Other sleep aids are avoiding heavy snacks at bedtime and leaving off caffeine.  High carbohydrates and sweets at bedtime can cause blood sugar to take a dive and wake you in the night, keeping you from getting back to sleep.

Sleep in complete darkness, if possible.  Even a small amount of light can disrupt melatonin production and you will not be able to sleep well. This is true especially as we age.

If you must watch TV before bed, you may sleep better by watching something lighthearted and not disturbing world events—like the news.

Warm feet reduce night awakenings; wearing socks may help.  Reading can help—if you don’t get caught up in an exciting book.  Journaling (writing down the day’s events, feelings, etc), getting to bed early, a regular bedtime, a cool room, a hot bath before bed, getting regular exercise, and removing the clock from view are some other suggestions.

If you value sleep as one of your most precious resources for health, you will figure out what works to help you sleep well. 

(Janice Norris lives in Heber Springs, has a B.S. in home economics from Murray State University, owned and operated health food stores in Illinois and Heber Springs, and wrote a weekly column in Illinois for 15 years. She can be reached at