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Want to start taking care of your health? Begin by looking at your sleep habits. Research shows that not getting enough sleep can not only make people feel irritable and tired, it can negatively affect health.

“Humans spend roughly one-third of their lives sleeping, so we know it’s important, biologically speaking,” says Daniel J. Buysse, MD, UPMC Professor of Sleep Medicine and professor of psychiatry and of clinical and translational science at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

J. Buysse, MD

Sleep is important to people of all ages. Though babies and children may look peaceful when they (finally) go to sleep, their brains and bodies are working. Sleep is essential for brain development, helps protect the heart, helps keep children from being overweight and boosts the immune system. A consistent sleep routine can also help children become better sleepers. It can also help regulate circadian rhythms, the 24-hour sleep-wake cycle often referred to as a “biological clock.”

Adolescents’ sleep patterns change, which Dr. Buysse says has a biological basis as well as a social one. Teens’ biological clock shifts later, which explains their desire to stay up late and sleep later in the mornings. Dr. Buysse points to some school districts pushing their start times later because “simply changing school start times by about an hour in the morning can reduce absenteeism, improve standardized test score performance, reduce traffic accidents and maybe even improve mental health.”

Dr. Buysse reminds parents that one of the most important things they can do for their children is model good sleep behavior. Parents can make it a part of their daily routine to get regular, appropriate amounts of sleep.

Adults’ sleep needs also shift, but sleep is still important to maintaining health. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, sleep allows the brain to prepare for the next day. Sleep deficiency is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, obesity, depression, suicide and risk-taking behavior. A brain functioning with a sleep deficiency has more trouble making decisions, solving problems and has slower reaction times.

“The art of good sleep involves the amount, regularity and time of sleep,” says Dr. Buysse. “We need to get the right amount of sleep, at the right time of day and on a regular basis. Not allowing our bedtime and wake time to vary too much can be a key to getting good sleep. Research shows that the right time is at night. For adults, the middle of our sleep should be 3-3:30 a.m. because that’s when our biological clock is best suited to sleep.”

What if people cannot sleep in the middle of the night because they are working? Dr. Buysse is currently running a study to see how night-shift work affects people’s health, even after they have retired. He says that about 15-20 percent of the United States’ population works something other than day shift—and research shows that African Americans, in particular, are disproportionately represented in night-shift work.

“This study is important because there’s increasing evidence that working the night shift may increase a person’s risk for certain diseases,” says Dr. Buysse. “When people work the night shift, their bodies have a hard time regulating their biological clock with the external world. This creates problems with metabolism and cardiovascular function.”

Although you might think that people who work consistent night shifts also shift their biological clock to be on an opposite schedule, Dr. Buysse says that’s not the case. Night-shift workers are still exposed to some sunlight and to regular social activities. This keeps their clocks on a day schedule, which, in turn, affects their sleep quality. His study with retired night-shift workers may lead to identifying an under-recognized risk for heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

Dr. Buysse reminds us that we should “pay attention to how our bodies prioritize, seek and regulate sleep. It’s a cornerstone of a set of behaviors we can use to be as healthy as we can be.”

 

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