Doctors routinely encourage us to eat better and exercise more - they could do just as much good by advising us on the right amount of sleep
On a routine visit to a doctor’s surgery, you might expect to have your blood pressure and BMI measured, and be asked a few questions about diet, exercise and alcohol intake. One thing the doctor probably won’t ask is “how do you sleep?”
If we’re serious about preventive health, that is a serious oversight. Poor sleep is a major risk factor for obesity, diabetes, mood disorders and immune malfunction. Put simply, poor sleep can shorten your life. How to fix the problem?
Although there are habits and tricks to sleeping we can all adopt (see “So many reasons why sleep is too important to miss“), everyone’s needs are different. Why this should be so is not well understood.
Perhaps the biggest gap is a lack of research into women’s sleep. Women typically report poorer quality and more disrupted sleep, and their risk of insomnia is 40 per cent higher than men’s. This gender difference is strongly associated with a greater risk of depression and a host of other illnesses. However, women and female animals are under-represented in studies of sleep and its disorders, and the reason for sex differences in sleep behaviour is unknown.
Then there are teenagers. Their hormonal turmoil has serious effects on their ability to switch off, but current wisdom leaves a lot to be desired. Parents might think they need to lay down the law on sleep, but research indicates that positive discussion between parents and teenagers is the best option.
At the other end of the age spectrum, older adults have a problem with sleeping pills. Paradoxically, taking them often makes sleep problems worse. The conclusion for seniors?Sleep medication use does not appear to promote sleep health.
With the profusion of sleep monitoring tech now at our disposal, doctors have the chance to intervene in an individualised way. And, unlike being urged to eat five a day or drink less than 21 a week, being advised how to get the right number of hours’ sleep a night is something we can all welcome.
This article appeared in print under the headline “Sleep better, be better”
Source: New scientist May 2016
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