On sleep and health

My wife and I are lucky. We sleep soundly throughout the night, with only the rare “off” night. Our lifestyle is tailor-made for adequate rest, as our work involves serious doses of exercise a couple of times each day, with most afternoons free for recovery. Lunch and a quick nap before heading back to work are luxuries that we don’t take for granted, especially now that my wife, Katie, is six months pregnant. Growing a person is hard work and requires cellular transformations of monumental proportions just to keep up with the increased circulatory, bone, blood, and tissue needs for both mom and baby.

Rest allows the body to focus on the repair tasks at hand with clarity and precision. It’s a constant cycle: circulation and movement to deliver nutrients, and sleep to transform these into the building blocks for health. Katie and I are rarely sick, despite working with hundreds of people each month. The hidden asset in our health formula is sleep. Unfortunately, as a nation we have neither the time nor the inclination to slow it all down for a little rest and repose each day, and our health suffers for it.

The National Sleep Foundation (I wonder if anyone there is overworked and sleep deprived?) recommends seven hours of sleep per day for adults, and 8 ½ to 9 ½ for children. Consistent or chronic sleep loss is often linked to high blood pressure, stroke, obesity, cardiovascular disease, depression, cigarette smoking and excessive drinking. This list sort of reads like the Who’s Who of America’s health problems, and in some cases may be more of a “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” quandary. Am I not sleeping because of my high blood pressure, or is my lack of sleep elevating my blood pressure?

In a survey of 87,000 adults started in 2004 and completed in 2006, an astonishing 33 percent of all those who said they couldn’t sleep more than six hours per day were obese. Only 18 percent of cigarette smokers ever slept more than six to seven hours per night, and the grand total for all those who are sleep-deprived is projected to be more than 50 million people. That’s a whole lot of slightly irritable, impatient, caffeine-addicted, depressed and underperforming co-workers to run into every day.

We are a highly motivated bunch, up early and off to work or school with plenty of work in front of us and lots of things to look forward to each day. We crave distraction and entertainment, are on the lookout for ways to improve performance and cut out any down time, and are always on the go. Caffeine is a welcome, soothing companion each morning, and in moderation is a fine way to start the day. It’s obviously not so good if it comes at the expense of a decent breakfast or if one cup becomes two, three or six. The need for stimulants increases over time and further contributes to sleep debt.

In most professions, sleep enhances performance, and in others it is nothing short of vital. I asked Dr. Michael Mulligan — a lung surgeon at the University of Washington Medical Center and one of the finest in the world — how he copes with an irregular and often intense surgery and follow-up schedule that can run from a few hours to more than a full day at a time. Prudent advice from Mulligan includes one or more 20-minute power naps to recharge the batteries. Finding time for a quick shower and shave to feel refreshed also works, as well as having the discipline to maintain adequate hydration — helping peak physical and mental performance. Mulligan tries to avoid high-carbohydrate meals and snacks, which produce an inevitable crash after a rush, and he works out regularly and intensely to build endurance and improve stamina.

Mulligan joins athletes such as NBA superstars Lebron James and Ray Allen, former world champion bodybuilder-turned-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, fellow surgeons and residents, and a host of big-time business executives who all rely daily on the power nap to increase mental awareness and alertness on the road to success. More sleep leads to better performance.

What can you do to improve your sleep patterns and, ultimately, your health? Let’s start with moving that fabulous body of yours every day. Your body is designed to circulate nutrients, constantly rebuilding and restoring its immune functions. Do something highly physical for 30-60 minutes every day. Eat small, balanced portions throughout the day, and avoid big, heavy dinners, which will only make your body work throughout the night to try and distribute or dispose of the extra calories consumed.

Knock off the gallons of caffeine ingested, but do it slowly over a period of 10-14 days to avoid crashing the system. Have a glass of ice water if your energy dips throughout the day, as the briskness tends to alert your senses. Adding a light snack, such as pretzels, cheese or yogurt, can help keep the system at the slightly higher level of attention needed at work.

Finally, allow yourself the luxury of a few minutes of peace sometime during the day — no TVs, no radios, no computers, no cell phones. Just shut it all down and be still. There’s no great mystery to “centering” yourself, no New Age technique that you have to employ; just practice patience and calmness. Let the quiet surround you, and sleep has a better chance of finding you.

Bryan Welch is the co-owner of Club Emerald on the Island.

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