March 14 has been declared World Sleep Day, a time to recognize and celebrate the value of sleep. Many sleep experts hope it will be a wake-up call.
According to a 2013 poll by the National Sleep Foundation, nearly 4 in 5 Americans don't get as much sleep as they should during the workweek. On average, adults are thought to need at least eight hours of sleep a night, although some can get by with less and some won't do well without more. But the survey found that, on workdays, only 21% of Americans actually get a full eight hours of sleep, and another 21% get less than six.
To many of us, the thought of spending more time sleeping is, well, a big yawn. On the other hand, the thought of being smarter, thinner, healthier and more cheerful — that has a certain appeal. And those are just a few of the advantages that researchers say can be ours if we consistently get enough sleep. Also on the plus side: We're likely to have better skin, better memories, better judgment, livelier libidos and, oh, yes, longer lives.
"When you lose even one hour of sleep for any reason, it impacts your performance the next day," says Dr. Alon Avidan, director of the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center.
A study published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology last year found the same to be true even for children. When kids ages 8 to 12 slept for just one hour less for four nights, they didn't function as well — either cognitively or emotionally — during the day.
But sleeping has an image problem. "We see napping or sleeping as lazy," says Jennifer Vriend, a clinical psychologist in Ottawa, Canada, and lead author of the study with children. "We put so much emphasis on diet, nutrition, exercise. Sleep is in the back seat." In fact, she adds, no matter how much we work out, no matter how well we eat, we can't be in top physical shape unless we also get plenty of sleep.
And what if we don't sometimes? Take this weekend, for example. We're all going to lose an hour, and for many of us it's likely to come out of our sleep. In fact, research has shown, our sleep is likely to go into deficit for several days. What to do?
The first rule, Avidan says, would have been to get plenty of sleep before now. OK. Moving on. Today, he says, we can still follow the general p's and q's for catching zzz's: avoid caffeine after noon; avoid alcohol and technology (TV, computer, texting, etc.) too close to bedtime. And when we get up tomorrow, we can make a point of getting plenty of light right away. That will encourage our biological clocks to reset themselves. A nap could help too, as long is it's short (15 to 20 minutes) and carefully timed (at 2 or 3 in the afternoon).
Unfortunately, though, there are no quick fixes. "Sleep is not like a bank account," Avidan says. "For one hour of sleep loss, you need 24 hours to recover."
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