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The Power of Sleep

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Sleep affects everything about us. There is no type of tissue, system or operation in the body—from the brain, heart and lungs to metabolism, immune function and mood—that isn’t enhanced by sleep. Unfortunately, in today’s fast-paced world, functioning on less sleep has become a kind of badge of honor for some. But sleep experts say if you think you’re doing fine on less sleep, think again. “A good night’s sleep can help us cope with stress, control our weight, solve problems and prevent serious illness and disease,” says Riva Rahl, MD, Cooper Clinic Platinum Physician.

What happens when we sleep?
During sleep our brains are busy recharging our bodies, releasing hormones, sorting and processing information, consolidating memories, ridding toxic waste and fighting inflammation and infection. Along with exercise and good nutrition, sleep health is a pillar of health and well-being.

Sleep’s fascinating stages
You may be surprised to learn sleep is not uniform. There are two broad categories of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep. Non-REM sleep is subdivided into three different stages. During sleep, we cycle through all stages of non-REM and REM sleep. This happens four to five times a night with longer, deeper REM periods occurring toward morning. Here's a brief overview of the stages of sleep.

Non-REM sleep
Stage 1: At the beginning of the sleep cycle, the brain produces theta waves, signifying the gentle changeover from wakefulness to sleep. During this brief period (5-10 minutes), heartbeat, breathing, eye movements and brainwave patterns start to slow down. Muscles relax and occasional twitching may occur.

Stage 2: As the brain begins to slow down further, it produces alpha waves. Body temperature drops and you enter a phase of light sleep before entering deeper sleep. Approximately 50% of sleep is spent in this phase.

Stage 3: In this stage, the brain produces delta (very slow) brain waves. Heartbeat, blood pressure and breathing slow to their lowest levels and muscles completely relax. If awakened, you may feel groggy and disoriented.

REM sleep
Stage 4: Beginning about 90 minutes after we go to sleep, REM sleep produces mixed frequency brainwave activity that reaches a level close to wakefulness. It is marked by rapid eye movement and increased dreaming. In fact, this is the stage in which most dreaming occurs. Additionally, arm and leg muscles become temporarily paralyzed, preventing us from acting out our dreams. Each REM stage gets progressively longer throughout the night. We spend approximately 25% of sleep in this phase.

Though brief awakenings are normal during the night, sleep experts recommend we get one continuous span of sleep. This allows each sleep cycle to complete naturally, thus boosting the quality of our sleep.   

How much sleep do we need?
While everyone is different, six to eight hours of sleep is thought to be normal. Unfortunately, it is estimated that 35% of adults in the United States don’t get enough sleep. While sleep guidelines are nearly universal, it’s helpful to fine-tune sleep habits to our individual needs.

10 big consequences of too little sleep
Missing out on sleep does more than make us feel groggy and out of sorts. Lack of sleep disrupts normal brain and body function, causing a decrease in metabolic rate and endocrine functions. This has a negative effect on, well, just about everything:

  1. Increased risk for chronic medical conditions. Make no mistake, the long-term effects on our bodies are real and include such chronic health problems as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression and auto-immune disorders among others.
  2. Weakened immune system. When we sleep, our bodies produce white blood cells and cytokines, which act as infection fighters. Lack of sleep decreases their numbers leaving us vulnerable to illness. When we don’t get enough quality sleep, we’re more likely to get sick and recover more slowly if we do get sick.
  3. Memory issues. During sleep our brains form connections that enable us to process new information and remember it. Lack of sleep can negatively impact both short- and long-term memory. What’s more, many studies connect the relationship between sleep deprivation and Alzheimer’s risk.
  1. Weight gain. Individuals who consistently get less than six hours of sleep are 30% more likely to become obese. This is due to a decrease in the body’s metabolic rate which increases stored fat. This not only contributes to such things as love handles and a double chin but also leads to major health issues such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and coronary artery disease.
  1. Mood changes. Researchers found even partial sleep deprivation has a significant effect on mood. Subjects who were limited to only 4.5 hours of sleep a night for one week reported feeling more stressed, angry, sad and mentally exhausted. When the subjects resumed normal sleep, their moods improved.
  1. Cognition issues. Insufficient sleep throws off the process that draws on both non-REM and REM sleep which can directly affect day-to-day actions such as memory, concentration, creativity, reasoning and problem-solving skills. It goes without saying, people who are sleep deprived are less productive at work, school and in their daily lives. 
  1. Low sex drive. It’s so easy to stay up late and watch TV, cram in a few more hours at the computer or catch up on social media. But that can take its toll. When we don’t get enough sleep, our hormones don’t function properly and that leads to low libido.
  1. Accidents. Sleep loss is also a major cause of road accidents and injuries on the job as well as in and around the home.
  1. Aging skin. Chronic sleep loss can lead to lackluster skin, fine lines and dark circles under the eyes due to the breaking down of skin collagen, the protein that keeps skin smooth and elastic—all of which makes us look older.
  1. Overall quality of life. Sleep is a vital part of our physical and mental health, just as much as food, water and oxygen. Getting the right amount of sleep is linked to greater life satisfaction and a longer, healthier life.

How can we improve our sleep?
Get more exercise, for starters. For more than 50 years, Cooper Aerobics has proven exercise is vital to our health, and that includes the quality and duration of sleep. In a controlled study, men and women 50–74 years old, who exercised four or more times a week fell asleep 15 minutes faster and slept 45 minutes longer.

In fact, sleep habits impact many of the 8 steps to Get Cooperized™. Other ways to prep for a good night’s sleep:

  • Relax for an hour before bedtime
  • Eliminate work-related activities
  • Don’t consume caffeine, alcohol or nicotine
  • Avoid violent TV
  • Enjoy your pet
  • Go to bed and wake up the same time each day
  • Take a hot bath or shower
  • Make sure your room is cool, quiet and dark
  • Eat a late-night snack that stabilizes your blood sugar such as milk, cheese, yogurt, chicken, turkey, banana, eggs and peanuts

Some people find melatonin and Benadryl helpful sleep inducers. While 3 mg of melatonin may be helpful, it can produce vivid dreams. The side effect of Benadryl is a long, half-life which means it may make you feel drowsy the next day.

Sleep is a vital part of our physical and mental health. It’s essential to make sleep hygiene an important part of our daily routine to help restore our body and mind at night.

To learn more about Cooper Clinic preventive exams and how an annual exam can help you manage and improve your health, visit or call 866.906.2667.

Article provided by Cooper Aerobics Marketing and Communications.