How Healthy Are Your Sleep Patterns?

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THE SYMPTOMS OF insufficient sleep are recognizable: You struggle to stay awake, you feel worn down, and you start to make small mistakes, such missing a question you knew the answer to on an exam or missing a traffic sign. Aside from injuries, most short-term effects of not getting adequate sleep are temporary, but larger problems persist when sleep debt is chronic.

Chronic sleep disruption or poor sleep health is defined as untreated sleep disorders such as sleep apnea and snoring, short sleep, or a schedule that varies by more than one or two hours. It’s associated with an increased risk of obesity, heart disease, cancer and automobile accidents, and can cause problems with attention and academic performance.

Poor sleep health costs society billions of dollars annually for everything from health care and transportation accidents to workplace errors. Everyday habits can contribute to the problem, such as spending too much time online at night, not prioritizing sleep and overreliance on stimulants ranging from caffeine to prescribed medications. All of these factors influence our sleep health.

The best way to assess if you have a problem with sleep deficiency is to watch for these six signs and symptoms that you’re falling short on sleep:

You find it difficult to wake up in the morning.
You’re falling asleep during the day.
You feel fatigued, or you experience daytime tiredness and physical discomfort or mental fog.
Your attention is impaired, or you have less impulse control.
You notice changes in mood, such as irritability or a low threshold to deal with life’s frustrations.
You’re snoring at night.
These problems and symptoms are similar in children and adults.

When any of these problems have a rapid onset and do not respond well to lifestyle changes or treatment of a sleep disorder, an underlying serious health problem could be present and should be evaluated. Importantly, for example, sudden changes in sleep patterns among teenagers experiencing depression could be a key marker of increased suicide risk. This should be viewed as a serious sign and calls for immediate intervention.

In other cases, inadequate sleep could drive depression. A recent study analyzing 32,470 women, free from depression, found that those who identified with being a morning person, as opposed to a night person, were less likely to experience depression later in life. We’ve seen the same patterns when shift workers and teens go against their body’s preferred sleep-wake cycles. This speaks to the significant role circadian rhythms play, and why sleep-wake cycles shouldn’t be ignored.

The 2017, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to researchers studying circadian rhythms, or how our body tracks time. While the science is evolving, what is known about sleep disorders receives little attention in medical school and training programs for all of our health care providers. Educating health care providers and the public about topics including nutrition, use of salt, exercise and sleep will go a long way toward improving health and well-being and reducing costs to society.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides critical educational information and statistics on all health problems including research and tips for better sleep, from keeping a consistent routine to removing electronic devices from the bedroom. As parents, it’s important to be aware of the signs that you or your family suffer from poor sleep health. Pay attention to these signs, and raise any concerns with a health provider.

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