Sweet Dreams – Why A Lack Of Sleep Can Kill You And What To Do About It!

Sleep is the gateway to your dreams. One of the most important building blocks of vitality resides in the healing power of sleep, an amazing life-sustaining system that can make immediate and dramatic changes to your well-being.

Sleep is when the body enters deepening metabolic states for your night repair system, allowing your body to re-align everything from your basic body chemistry through to your thoughts and emotions. Research reveals that sleep performs three vital functions to sustain life and vitality:

1. Sleep rejuvenates your body chemistry for renewed energy.

2. Sleep recharges your immune system and heals damage done to your body.

3. Sleep helps process, sort and store everything your learnt, felt or experienced during the day.

Good health is balanced equally across the mind (mental / emotional), the body (structural and neuromuscular) and energy production (biochemical) – a balancing act performed nightly by sleep.

Stages of Sleep

Sleep is divided into four stages of Non REM sleep and REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement). Dreaming occurs in both stages but mostly during the REM sleep phase. Each cycle of Non REM sleep and REM sleep is repeated every 90 minutes, which is classed as one cycle. Five to six cycles per night is the ideal amount of sleep required for people aged 15 years and older, which can be achieved over an 8 hour duration.

Children have an even greater sleep requirement than adults, as sleep stimulates growth, proper brain development, memory, alertness and strengthens their immune system. Children who get enough sleep are more likely to function better and are less prone to behavioural problems, moodiness, hyperactivity and nightmares.

The following chart guidelines the recommended hours of sleep (which includes naps) for children from birth and up to the age of 15 years.

Child’s Age and the Hours of Sleep Needed:

0 – 2 months ( 10.5 – 18 hours )

2 – 12 months ( 14 – 15 hours )

1 – 3 years ( 12 – 14 hours )

3 – 5 years ( 11 – 12 hours )

5 – 12 years ( 10 – 11 hours )

12 – 15 years ( 9 – 10 hours )

Unfortunately, humans can override the biological need to sleep in order to respond to stressful situations such as work requirements or social pressures. Long-lasting stressful experiences in childhood and perceived life stress are associated with disturbances in sleep quality and insomnia. In fact, since 1910 the amount of sleep we get has steadily declined by a massive 22%, dropping from 9 hours to just 7 hours per night. This is a “sleeping time bomb” in terms of health.

Sleep is Vital

Few people realise every hour of lost sleep goes on their body’s tab as if they were using a life-long credit card. Sleep debt builds over years, months or days, gradually robbing people of their health. After oxygen and water, sleep is your most vital need, even more important that food!

Sleep deprivation studies in the mid 1980′ clearly demonstrated that a lack of adequate sleep can be fatal, at least in rats. While this extreme effect of sleep deprivation may not seem particularly relevant in the real world, it does bear an important message; that lack of sleep can kill.

If someone is completely deprived of sleep, they can die within two weeks. If that’s not enough to scare you, short-term sleep deprivation studies in humans have shown that a variety of adverse physiologic effects can occur. These range from weight gain and accelerated aging, to making you vulnerable to illnesses ranging from digestive disorders and depression, through to potentially fatal diseases cause by compromised immune function.

Insomnia and depression, is there a link?

Research shows that insomnia and depression are definitely linked. One of the symptoms of depression is insomnia – specifically waking up early in the morning. In fact 80% of depressed people are said to experience insomnia.

There is also evidence that depressed people enter the REM sleep (dream sleep) phase earlier than non depressed people and stay in REM for longer. This could be because they need to deal with emotions through dreams or it may be the prevalence of REM sleep means they are not getting enough restfull deep sleep.

The best thing is to first try and understand what’s causing the insomnia. Is it a specific incident or situation? Or do you feel generally depressed about everything? If the former is true, try and find a way around the situation, be solution orientated instead of always finding reasons why it can’t be done. If it’s the latter, then you have clinical depression which needs medical attention.

It is important to be aware though, that some anti-depression medication can cause you to become over stimulated and this will certainly keep you awake. Talk to your health care provider to see if your medication could be doing this and ask to change to a medication that helps you to relax.

Taking proactive steps to solve a problem will always make you feel better and more in control.

Insomnia and pharmaceutical medication

As might be anticipated, medication use for insomnia is common with somewhat between 3 to 10% of the general population using pharmaceutical medication at any or all the time to help them sleep. The most popular medications, Benzodiazepines (benzos) receptor agonists, are associated with addiction and tolerance.

Some of the more common drugs in this group are:

o Diazepam (e.g. Valium, Antenex, Ducene)

o Temazepam (e.g. Normison, Temaze, Temtabs, Euhypnos)

o Flunitrazepam (e.g. Hypnodorm)

o Nitrazepam (e.g. Mogadon, Alodorm)

o Oxazepam (e.g. Serepax, Alepam, Murelax)

o Alprazolam (e.g. Xanax, Kalma)

o Clonazepam (e.g. Rivotril, Paxam)

o Lorazepam (e.g. Ativan)

Short-term effects –

o relaxation, drowsiness, lethargy, fatigue

o memory impairment (especially short-term memory)

o impairment of motor coordination, thinking and memory (decreased reaction time and increased accident risk)

o staggering, blurred vision, vertigo

o slurred speech

o nightmares

o altered mood (depression or euphoria), confusion

o sensitivity reactions (e.g. rashes)

o high doses may lead to paradoxical effects such as rage or uncharacteristic behaviour, a person may feel invisible, invulnerable and invincible

o drug interactions – especially with other depressant drugs (e.g. alcohol, opioids – deaths from respiratory depression have occurred with these combinations)

Long-term effects –

o lethargy, sleepiness and lack of motivation

o emotional blunting (inability to feel the normal highs and lows, inability to grieve), depression, irritability

o impairment of memory

o muscle weakness

o headaches, nausea, weight gain

o menstrual irregularities, breast engorgement, reduced libido

o dependence

Tolerance and Dependence-

Benzodiazepine tolerance is common among people who take these drugs – this means they need more of the drug to achieve the same effect they used to get with smaller amounts. Tolerance to the sleep-inducing and relaxing effects develops quickly.

Regular users of benzodiazepines can develop dependence after only 3-6 weeks at normal prescribed doses and the likelihood of dependence increases with duration of use and amount taken. Dependence means that benzodiazepine use becomes central to a person’s life and a lot of time may be spent thinking about, obtaining and using them. Dependent users may have difficulty controlling or stopping their use despite experiencing problems.

Withdrawal –

Someone who is dependent on benzodiazepines is likely to experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop taking them abruptly. It is recommended that a gradual reduction be undertaken, in consultation with a doctor. Withdrawal symptoms can be divided into three main groups and they may include a return of symptoms that the drugs were taken for in the first place.

Anxiety and related symptoms including:

o anxiety, panic attacks, hyperventilation, tremor

o sleep disturbance, muscle spasms, loss of appetite and weight loss

o visual disturbance, sweating

o mood changes (lack of enjoyment)

Perceptual changes including:

o overly sensitive to noise etc.

o abnormal sensations

o feelings of unreality

Major events including:

o seizures

o severe confusion, hallucinations, paranoia

Clearly, alternative sleep promoting medicines and remedies are needed.

It is really unfortunate that for so many people achieving a good night’s sleep is difficult. Fortunately, many natural remedies have been clinically shown to reduce the effects of stress and promote healthy sleep, and thus offer a realistic alternative to popular but potentially problematic pharmaceuticals.

The old fashioned remedy of giving a glass of warm milk before bed, has long been a popular home remedy for a sound sleep. Modern research has since isolated a bioactive milk peptide that may be responsible for this traditional use of milk.

Natural sleep medications vary from herbal sleep remedies to hormones and even certain foods. Its a broad category so its worth experimenting to see which of these remedies is the most helpful for you. Its a good idea to try these natural sleep aids before jumping into the stronger “hypnotic” sleep medications.

Most of us know it’s wise to avoid caffeine in the evenings if we want to sleep soundly, but there are other foods and drinks which may also have an effect on our sleep.

Let’s have a look at some of the foods that can help you sleep –

Bananas, turkey, figs, milk & yoghurt, nut butters, tuna and dates all contain tryptophan which induces sleep.

Don’t have a high protein snack to close to bedtime. This can block the synthesis of serotonin, making you feel restless. Have a high carbohydrate snack instead. Carbohydrates eaten at least an hour before bed will calm you and let you doze off faster. If you like rice, Jasmine rice is particularly effective. Healthier choices are brown rice, oats and anything made whole wheat.

And those foods to avoid include –

Coffee, tea, alcohol and cola drinks. Others include hard to digest foods such as fatty or spicy foods, bacon, chocolate, sugar (which raises glucose levels in the blood and can cause a surge in energy levels), cheese, eggplant, potatoes, ham, sauerkraut, sausages, spinach, tomatoes, and wine.

These foods all contain tyramine, which induces the release of norepinephrine, a brain stimulant. So, don’t have any of these just before bedtime.

By now, you’re probably wishing you’d never read this article! But unless people are educated to be aware of symptoms emerging in their waking lives, they can have a serious health problem without ever knowing it. If you can identify with any of the health issues addressed in this article, it would be very wise to seek the advice and support of you health care practitioner.

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