A century ago Americans averaged nine hours of sleep a night. Then came the incandescent light bulb, followed by television, computers, laptops, tablets, cell phones and many other devices that keep us up and keep sending signals to our brains not to produce melatonin — and thus delay sound sleep.
Today the average for Americans sleep-wise is trending toward fewer than seven hours a night. Have our bodies changed in the past century to enable us to sleep less and still function normally? The answer is basically no. We’re shortchanging ourselves and bringing on health problems that can be avoided or ameliorated if we sleep as our bodies dictate.
Some of these problems involve obesity, hypertension, arrhythmia, diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Notice how the heart — and conditions affecting the heart — come into play when sleep is shortchanged.
According to research by the Harvard Medical School: “Poor sleep increases levels of C-reactive protein, interleukin-6, tumor necrosis factor-alpha, and other substances that reflect active inflammation, the body’s response to injury, infection, irritation, or disease. It is a key player in heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic conditions. Poor sleep also revs up the body’s sympathetic nervous system, which is activated by fright or stress.”
In other words, lack of sleep throws our body’s normal functioning out of whack, with sometimes-series end results.
The opposite, of course, can also be true. Heart problems can lead to sleep problems. Heart disease can result in poor sleep — waking fitfully as our lungs fill with fluids — and can even lead to sleep apnea, cessations of breathing throughout the night.
The one constant in either situation is worsened sleep, resulting in bigger health challenges. It’s thus imperative to deal quickly with sleep deprivation, snoring, apnea and other conditions that ruin our night’s rejuvenation process. If you’re groggy in the daytime, sleep fewer than seven hours a night or recognize other sleep issues, it’s time to seek professional help. Otherwise, problematic health conditions can result — or worsen.