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Could sleep be your single most important health habit?

published: 10-12-2011 Journal entry icon

Have you ever had one of those days that never seemed to go well, from the minute you heard the alarm clock go off? Maybe you didn’t have time for breakfast, forgot your laptop at home, lost your temper when someone cut you off on your way to work, replied to an e-mail in a way you really wished you hadn’t, ate poorly all day, couldn't concentrate at work, and then couldn't find the energy to go the gym?

Ask yourself how you slept the night before. One factor that can contribute to bad days is lack of sleep. Not getting enough sleep is all too common in the military and across the country—it’s often looked at as the price you pay to get ahead. Some sacrifice sleep for social activities at night—web surfing, e-mailing, watching TV, playing video games, or one more drink out with buddies—which further worsens the issue.

Bottom line: Not getting enough sleep is pervasive throughout all ranks and has major negative impact on your health, relationships, and career. The effects of sleep loss affect performance in much the same way that alcohol intoxication does. So coming to work deprived of sleep is rather like coming to work drunk. Your interactions with others and your job performance suffer—which has a huge impact on safety. Losing sleep isn’t sustainable for the long run.

But the damage doesn’t stop there. In fact, sleep loss has a ripple effect throughout virtually every aspect of health and wellness, including your physical, emotional, social, family, and spiritual well-being (see the five program components of Comprehensive Soldier Fitness here). It increases your risk of disease and harms your social relationships and possibly your professional reputation.

Sleep deprivation can be a byproduct of mission demands, of course. In the military, sleep loss is sometimes used on the battlefield as a weapon, wearing the enemy down through non-stop engagement. The problem is that this strategy affects our own Warfighters, too. Senior leaders are cautious in employing this tactic, and it’s used only for specific, organized, orchestrated periods of time, allowing for a full rest and recovery before massive errors occur that can cost lives.

Where many of us go wrong is thinking this type of sleep schedule is normal and maintaining it post-deployment. Most people aren’t able to tell when their state of mind—alertness, mood, concentration—has been compromised by lack of sleep until gross errors are made.

I believe sleep is the single most vital wellness function we do every single 24-hour period, and yet it requires no treadmills, no weights to be lifted, no personal trainers, and not even special clothes. It has dramatic implications for your entire body and sets you up for optimization everywhere else. Sleep is commonly overlooked at the doctor's office because physicians (including myself) don't understand exactly how it works, and in fact, there is no standardized medical test to see if you are getting enough sleep. But that’s no reason to ignore the health treasures afforded to those who get a great night's sleep on a regular basis.

On average, we spend 20-25 years of our lives sleeping, and five to seven of those are spent the critical dream periods known as "Rapid Eye Movement." REM periods occur at regular intervals throughout a night of good rest (when not impaired by alcohol, caffeine, or other drugs). Unfortunately, many of us look at this time as wasted, yet it can be some of the most glorious "unconscious" time to improve our health!

During REM periods, your brainwave patterns register signals much like those produced when you are awake and concentrating. During sleep you also secrete hormones that repair tissue and renew microscopic damages to cells and organs before they develop into bigger problems. In fact, you actually concentrate and focus for several hours throughout a good night's rest as you repair your body! Your brain, the center of all health, is exercising while you lie quietly in dreamland! When you destroy the quality of your REM sleep, the result is poor performance, inattention, obesity, hormonal imbalances, poor appetite, lack of normal growth, high blood pressure, poor interpersonal skills, no energy for the gym, possibly diabetes, and more.

Getting enough sleep means you are more likely to live longer, experience less disease, retain information better, perform better, and get more out of your workouts. You will be more patient with others, less demanding and prone to anger, and able to optimize all aspects of human performance, including your family relationships. For more about getting enough sleep, visit the HPRC’s Sleep Optimization page. Don't overlook the simplicity of a good night's rest.


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