Get Your Sleep: All You Didn’t Want to Know About Sleep-Related Health Problems

October 13, 2017
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Sleep is one of those parts of our day that many of us take for granted—that is, those of us who get a full night’s sleep relatively easily, without resorting to prescription drugs or other alternative treatments, seldom think about it.

However, if you have more trouble getting a full night’s sleep, it’s in your best interest to try to change that pattern for the better: it can mean more damage to your health than you might realize.

During sleep, fluids wash through the brain, cleaning away toxins and waste products, the buildup of which has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease and other neurologic conditions—specifically, this cleansing is accomplished when cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is filtered through the brain as it is exchanged with interstitial fluid. A full night’s sleep best allows for this kind of “wash down” or clearing away of metabolic waste, say researchers at Stony Brook University School of Medicine and University of Rochester: they also examined the effects of different sleep positions on animal subjects and found that “the glymphatic transport system responsible for this ‘wash down’ process works most efficiently when animal subjects were sleeping in the lateral position (on their sides) rather than on their backs or stomachs.”

Other benefits of a good night’s sleep include the development of new neuron connections and the restoration of damaged brains and brain cells.  A full night’s sleep can help delay or prevent the early onset of dementia, epilepsy, and neurodegenerative disease.  Sleeping well also ensures healthy brain function and emotional well-being.  Sleep deficiency, then, can cause not only mood swings and depression, but also an alteration of brain activity related to decision making, problem solving, controlling emotions and behavior, and coping with change.

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Another major bodily function affected by irregular sleep schedules includes metabolic function: results of a recent study published February 1st, 2016 by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, found that greater variability in bedtimes—for example, going to bed and waking later, on the weekends—was associated with higher insulin resistance and higher body mass index (BMI), and also, consequently, an increased risk of diabetes.  It’s hard to believe that something so common—choosing to stay out and sleep in later than usual, on the weekends—could be the cause of so many potential side effects.

Another sleep-related study conducted by researchers at The University of Arizona, Harvard University, and Arizona State University—this time examining the connection between childhood sleep patterns and physiological traits—found that children who slept 7.5 hours or less a night had higher odds of being obese than children who slept at least nine hours a night.  Some of the potential consequences of lack of sleep also include anxiety, depression, and learning problems.  Ultimately, an increased risk for higher body weight in early adolescence that was found for children with reduced amounts of sleep (less than 7.5. hours per night).

Among the many damaging conditions associated with lack of sleep is cancer, unfortunately, and pancreatic cancer is no exception.  An especially aggressive cancer, pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, with an especially short life expectancy after diagnosis.  Not surprisingly, a study headed by Andrew Boyd of the University of Illinois Health Information Sciences Department that screened for depression, sleep-related disturbances, and anxiety in patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer found that sleep disorders such as insomnia are disproportionately common among those with pancreatic cancer, as opposed to those without.  (Although this might seem like it makes logical sense—like, of course people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer suffer from insomnia and depression—well, that’s why we have science: to prove things using experimental studies and data.)

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We can see, then, that lack of sleep and the altering of sleep patterns are extremely damaging for both children and adults.  As opposed to lack of sleep, though, there’s also the phenomenon of ‘sleep apnea,’ which is defined as having one or more pauses in breathing or shallow breaths during sleep.  However, in a recent study by professor Eyal Shahar, instructor of the Basic Principles of Epidemiology course in University of Arizona’s Master in Public Health program, it was found that “Despite the widespread use of the apnea-hypopnea index in research, its scientific and statistical properties have not been examined thoroughly.”  In other words, the main variable used to calculate and determine whether an individual suffers from sleep apnea has been found to be inconsistent and unreliable.

This last finding can serve as a reminder that we in the medical and scientific community should never take anything for granted—even the tools and terms used to research sleep disorders, for example.  However, the basic findings from all of these studies seem to agree that a sufficient amount of sleep is crucial to basic functioning, and it can also prevent or delay a number of serious health conditions such as diabetes and dementia.  Sleep is precious, so do what you can to get as many hours as possible, each night.  Make sure that any children in your care get at least eight hours of sleep a night, as well—lest they face dire consequences, in the future.