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3Qs: How important is getting enough sleep?

September 15, 2011 -Professor Dorett Hope PHOTO: Christopher Huang / Northeastern University

We’ve all been there before — someone in a meeting or classroom yawns, and pretty soon everyone is following suit. But research has shown links between adequate sleep and improved cognitive functioning, and between lack of sleep and health concerns. We asked Dr. Dorett Hope, associate professor in the School of Nursing in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences, to assess the importance of sleep from a wellness perspective and offer tips to help people get more sleep.

Why is it important to get enough sleep, and is there a recommended amount per night?

Sleep is really a basic necessity of life and as important to our wellbeing as air, food and water. When we sleep well, we wake up feeling refreshed, alert and ready to meet the day’s challenges. The National Sleep Foundation is a good resource for information. This issue has also become more of a concern for health and wellbeing in recent years, to the point that more sleep centers nationwide are focusing on sleep disorders.

Daily sleep recommendations are by nature generalizations, and people are different and must assess their own individual needs. But recommendations range from 12–18 hours for newborns to 8.5–9.25 hours for teenagers and 7–9 hours for adults.

I teach a wellness class each semester in which my students choose an individual behavior they want to change to enhance their wellness, and students who have selected sleep have shown good results. One student indicated she noticed an immediate shift in mood when getting 7–8 hours of sleep, woke up refreshed and able to accomplish more and motivated to exercise rather than having to force herself.

What are the health risks associated with lack of sleep, and how does it affect the body in other ways?

First and foremost, a lack of sleep leads to a decreased ability to pay attention, react to signals and remember new information. One specific study by a researcher, Jane Ferrie, at the University College London Medical School supported the idea that sleep regenerates neurons that enable the brain to function optimally. The study also found participants whose sleep decreased over a five-year period experienced an accelerated mental decline during cognitive testing. There’s also more research going on investigating the effects of too much sleep.

Other studies have suggested links between lack of sleep other problems: an increased risk of auto accidents, [weight gain] due to an increased appetite caused by sleep deprivation, diabetes, heart problems and psychiatric conditions such as depression and substance abuse.

Can you offer tips for people looking to fall asleep earlier, or easier, at night?

It’s very important that individuals create a regular, relaxing bedtime routine that quiets the mind and spirit — especially with all the technology available to us. It’s hard to go from Facebook and being on the computer right to sleep. The routine could include soaking in a hot bath, listening to soothing music, meditation or even doing Sudoku or a crossword puzzle.

Other tips include establishing a consistent sleep and wake schedule; creating a sleep environment that is dark, quiet, comfortable and cool; avoiding “sleep stealers” such as watching TV or using a computer while lying in bed; finishing eating 2–3 hours before bedtime; and avoiding caffeine before bedtime.

People need to make sleep a priority, along with exercise and healthy eating. Our brains need to be recharged every night, just the like all the technology devices we use.

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