Sleep is soothing. It allows you to recharge and seize the day — day after day. But it’s more than just an opportunity to rest. In fact, sleep is so vital to your health and wellness that your body is programmed to do it for a full one-third of your life.
When you don’t get enough sleep, either due to workload, psychological stress, apnea or generalized insomnia, the body begins to breakdown. Poor health conditions like pain, body aches and headache that are common in chronic sleep-disorders are soon followed by diseases like depression, cardiovascular disease and stroke.
I recently read two studies that shed more light on the grave necessity of sound sleep, by showing how directly sleep disorders can impact pain levels, catastrophizing (I explain this unique condition below), heart disease and stroke. It appears that sleep disorders, which some doctors may trivialize when compared to pain or disease, should be our starting point towards wellness.
Insomnia, catastrophizing and osteoarthritis
Study results recently published in the American College of Rheumatology’s journal, Arthritis Care and Research, suggest that people with osteoarthritis (OA) of the knee, who also suffer chronic insomnia, are much more sensitive to pain than those with OA of the knee who sleep well. It’s not a stretch to say that this association is not limited to this particular arthritic condition, but to those who suffer chronic pain of any kind and also have a sleep disorder.
Among the research findings was that those OA patients suffering insomnia also had evidence of central sensitization (CS). This is a term used to describe how a specific pain area becomes even more painful and sensitive to stimulation over time as a result of changes in the central nervous system. CS is also found to be associated with catastrophizing, a term used to describe how people in pain tend to project a worse outcome for themselves based on their visualization of their future lack of ability to do the same as now more, because of their chronic condition. In other words, they see their pain and life only getting worse.
This three-punch combination was discovered by researchers as they conducted a case controlled study of 4 well-characterized groups of 208 adults with insomnia and/or knee osteoarthritis. The study gives the specific details, but for our purposes the results tell all:
“The KOA-Insomnia group demonstrated the greatest degree of CS compared to controls. In the overall sample, we found that catastrophizing moderated the relationship between sleep efficiency and CS. Specifically those with low sleep efficiency and high catastrophizing scores reported increased levels of CS. In addition, CS was significantly associated with increased clinical pain.”
Insomnia, heart disease and stroke
The European Society of Cardiology recently held their EuroHeartCare conference where an important paper was presented on the connection between lack of sleep, cardiovascular disease and stroke. The conclusion given by lead paper author Valery Gafarov, professor of cardiology at the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences in Novosibirsk, Russia, was direct and striking: “Poor sleep is associated with increased risk of heart attack and stroke.”
According to Professor Gafarov, “Mortality from cardiovascular diseases accounts for nearly 50% of the total mortality among the population. Nearly 80% of deaths from cardiovascular disease are due to myocardial infarction (heart attack) and stroke. It means that today we are talking about an epidemic of cardiovascular disease. It is therefore necessary to engage in intensive prevention of risk factors leading to the development of cardiovascular diseases.”
In addition to the well-known risk factors for heart disease—i.e., smoking, poor diet and lack of exercise—we can now add lack of sleep. And it seems that the cause of the lack of sleep, be it insomnia or sleep apnea, is less important than the sleep loss itself. Stroke is also a known risk factor associated with lack of sleep, and was discussed at the conference.
For the study, 657 Russian men between the ages of 25 and 64 were recruited in 1994. These men had no prior known history of heart disease, stroke or diabetes. Their sleep quality was assessed at the start of the study and cases of myocardial infarction (heart attack) and stroke were recorded over the following 14 years.
The findings were startling and clear: 63% of study participants who suffered heart attack during this period also had a sleep disorder. The researchers also noted that sleeping disorders are closely associated with negative affective states, including anxiety, depression, hostility, vital exhaustion and are associated with social stress in the population.
What’s more, those men who did not sleep well over the following 5 and 14 year follow-ups, had a 2-to-2.6 times greater risk of heart attack and a 1.5-to-4 times greater risk of stroke than those who slept well.
The evidence for the dire need for sleep is clear.
Find your best sleep now
When it comes to getting a full night of rested sleep, do not look at it as a privilege or a treat; it is an essential piece of the wellness puzzle. Just getting those REM-filled eight hours a night can do more to ward off risk of heart disease, stroke, anxiety, and obesity and reduce pain than diet and exercise alone. Here are some tips to get better sleep:
- Do not eat after 8pm, drink caffeinated beverages or alcohol after 6pm, or exercise before bed. All of these excite the body and reduce your ability to find sound sleep.
- Make your bedroom a sanctuary for sleep, by not reading, eating or watching TV in bed, dampening as much light as possible with curtains and even turning digital clocks away from you.
- Practice meditation, mindful breathing or self-hypnosis in bed to help derail the spinning mind, calm the nervous system and help you relax into sleep.
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time each night to help get your circadian rhythm in sync.
If you feel you need a little extra help getting to sleep, one of my go-to natural sleep remedies is tart cherry juice. It’s been shown to improve sleep because of its melatonin content. Avoid drinking it right at bedtime so you aren’t awakened by your bladder.
Remember, sleep is one of the single most important things you can do to increase your life span and quality of life overall. It is something within your grasp and ability to control. And it feels good.