A collection of studies published Wednesday in the journal Sleep tackled some important questions: What are the health effects of not getting enough sleep? How does sleep deprivation affect teens? Does insomnia have long-term consequences?
Given that past research has shown that short sleepers (and unusually long sleepers) die younger than people who get 6.5 to 7.5 hours per night, a new Penn State study looked at the impact of insomnia on mortality. The consequences could be dire: the study of 1,741 men and women in Pennsylvania found that insomniac men who slept less than 6 hours per day were four times more likely to die than those who got a full night’s rest. The study even adjusted for other medical conditions that affect sleep (and death rates), such as obesity, alcohol and depression. Of note, sleep deprivation did not affect women’s mortality.
In another study in Sleep, University of Sydney researchers focused on adolescents and young adults who weren’t getting enough sleep — an increasingly common problem among the digital generation, who stays up late plugged into their computers and smart phones. Turns out, burning the midnight oil can have long-term consequences. Researchers found that for each hour of lost sleep, levels of psychological distress rose by 5% in nearly 3,000 17-to-24-year-olds who were followed for 12 to 18 months. Overall, short sleepers were 14% more likely to report symptoms of psychological distress on a standard test, compared with people who got adequate sleep. The effect was especially pronounced among young people who already suffered from anxiety; in this group, lack of sleep triggered more serious mental health problems like full-blown depression and even bipolar disorder, according to the study’s lead author, Professor Nick Glozier. But even among those who began the study in good health, less than five hours of sleep meant tripling their odds of psychological distress.
A third Sleep study this week found that teens who didn’t get enough z’s consumed more calories than their well-rested peers. The study of 240 adolescents, average age 18, revealed that teenagers who slept less than 8 hours a night on weeknights ate 2% more calories from fat per day and 3% more calories from carbs than teens who slept longer. They also tended to get their calories from snacks instead of healthful meals. Cumulatively, this behavior increases the risk of obesity and, in turn, the chances of developing cardiovascular disease later in life.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine suggests that adults get an average of seven to eight hours of sleep per night, while the National Sleep Foundation recommends that adolescents need at least 8.5 hours, though only 15% of them get enough.
“Sleep disorders are common in the general population and even more so in clinical practice, yet are relatively poorly understood by doctors and other health care practitioners,” wrote Sue Wilson, the lead author of new guidelines published today by the British Association of Psychopharmacology to help doctors treat insomnia and other sleep disorders. Her advice: get a diagnosis from a sleep specialist for patients, then try behavioral therapy to improve their sleep before jumping to prescription medication. Most of all, pay attention to who you are treating: postmenopausal women might need hormone therapy, small children with ADHD might require melatonin treatment.
And if you suffer from disordered sleep patterns, consider these tips from the National Sleep Foundation:
Avoid caffeine. Tea, coffee, soda and energy drinks can keep you awake for up to 12 hours. Instead, when your mid-afternoon slump hits, try an energizing snack like nuts or yogurt.
Nest. Make your bed as comfortable as possible. Keep your sleep environment dark, cool and work-free.
Establish a routine. About an hour before bedtime, start a nightly relaxation routine that can include reading, taking a bath or anything else that soothes you. Complete all exercise at least three hours before bedtime. Don’t look at screens before you go to sleep, which can stimulate your brain.
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