Want to Live a Long Time? Turn Off the TV and Go to Bed
If you’re like me, your main concern about sleep usually is getting enough so that you don’t feel tired the next day.
But how much sleep you get, I’ve come to find out, is only one concern about your nighttime slumber. And how energetic you feel after a night’s sleep may not even be the most important health effect of what you do at night.
Here’s something else you should consider. . .
“Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise” is a saying attributed to Ben Franklin.
Research on sleep is showing the truth to that adage – with the additional advice that getting to bed early – and at the same time each night — is crucial for mental and physical well-being.
A late bedtime can have serious consequences and may be a major factor in warping your mental state.
For example: A study at the State University of New York, Binghampton, shows that staying up late increases your risk of suffering strong symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).1
OCD involves an excessive level of anxiety over things that really don’t make any sense. A person suffering from OCD might have so much fear of germs he washes his hands over and over again. Or is anxious about turning out a light or closing a door and does it over and over again until he gets it “just right.” It’s impossible for the victim to get rid of the thought that the action wasn’t performed the right way and so has to be done over and over.
In their study, the Binghamton researchers analyzed the sleep habits of 30 people who suffered varying degrees of OCD. They found that the people who went to bed earlier had better control of their obsessive and compulsive thoughts and actions. Those who were up late struggled with these compulsions more.
“I always knew you were supposed to get eight hours of sleep, but I was never told it matters when you do it,” says researcher Meredith Coles. “It’s been striking to me that this difference seems to be very specific to the circadian component of when you sleep. That we find that there are specific negative consequences of sleeping at the wrong times.”
Getting to Bed at a Consistent Time
Along with the advice to get to bed earlier, other researchers warn that frequently shifting your bedtime can mess up the inner workings of your body, cause you to gain weight and make you more liable to develop diabetes.
Research at the University of Pittsburgh involving middle-aged women finds that changing the time you hit the sack from day-to-day – or even just staying up later on weekends – makes you more likely to become insulin resistant.2 Insulin resistance means your cells are having trouble taking sugar out of the blood. It can be a first step toward full-blown diabetes.
“Irregular sleep schedules, including highly variable bedtimes and staying up much later than usual, are associated in midlife women with insulin resistance, which is an important indicator of metabolic health, including diabetes risk,” says Pittsburgh researcher Martica Hall. “We found that weekday-weekend differences in bedtime were especially important.”
The researchers warn that your diabetes risk generally goes up as you enter middle-age. But their study demonstrates that the women who had the same bedtimes and wake times on weekends as they did on weekdays had a better chance of avoiding blood sugar issues.
To be sure, I doubt if this is a big factor in diabetes. But if you are otherwise predisposed to this disease – have a sweet tooth, are overweight – you don’t need other bad habits pushing you over the edge.
So, you might say, you don’t have OCD and you’re not at risk for diabetes. Why worry? My take is that these two sleep studies are just the tip of the iceberg. A regular, early bedtime is important for all of us.
Sleep is complicated. As scientists are just beginning to learn, a lot of stuff goes on in our brains and the rest of our bodies while we’re snoring away. Humans got along for hundreds of thousands of years without checking Facebook or watching Jimmy Fallon at 11 PM. I think I’ll do things the way my ancestors did.
Ways to Improve Your Sleep
If you want to improve your sleep and make it a help to your health instead of a hindrance, try following these tips:
- Get some sun every day, Research at the University of Michigan shows that people who get out in the sun everyday get to bed earlier and get more sleep than folks who stay indoors.3
- Keep your bedroom as dark as possible at night. Lab research at Caltech indicates that light at night stimulates a specific protein in the brain that decreases your sleepiness.4 Cover up those infernal little red and green lights on televisions, computers and other electric devices. If light from street lamps and cars is finding its way into your bedroom, wear a sleep mask if there’s no other way to shut it out.
- Keep your bedroom cool at night. Many studies show that a warm bedroom disrupts your sleep. Some experts recommend that you keep the bedroom between 60 and 67 degrees at night.5
- Perhaps most urgent, if you have sleep apnea or any other condition – maybe frequent bathroom trips — that interrupts your sleep, get it treated. The latest science shows it’s extremely important to sleep for a least a couple of hours at a time without waking. Failure to do so does deadly damage to your health.
Jet Lag Without Airplanes
Our sleep habits are so random and haphazard, researchers have come up with a name for the habit of changing your bedtime from one day to the next: They now call it “social jet lag.” They gave it this name because it can lead to the same groggy, out-of-it feelings you get from flying between time zones.
So do yourself a favor. Resist the temptation to burn the midnight oil doing things you know are not that important. These days, with all the recording devices, it’s easy to shift your favorite TV programs to other times. And email and Facebook can wait. Keep a consistent sleep routine. It’s a sure way to keep yourself healthier.