If you prefer to listen to this in a podcast format instead, you can listen to Episode 10 of the Imperfect Dad, MD Podcast.
When our kids are born it is a joyous occasion. There are many tears, smiles, and sighs of relief. Then comes the second night and cluster feeding. The frequent awakenings for diaper changes. The inconsolable hour that almost every baby goes through once they hit a few weeks old. Sleep, as we knew it, is no more.
As our kids age, their sleep needs and habits change. Even when our toddler no longer needs to feed at night, many may wake up for other reasons. These frequent awakenings can be a drain on a parent’s patience as well as their health. Eventually, our children get into a normal rhythm and sleep well through the night. But what about parents? Do they take the time to get back into a healthy sleep routine? Or has their perception of what good sleep really is been altered?
What is Good Sleep?
I am sure you know someone in your life who has bragged about how little sleep they need to function. I remember having a professor in microbiology who claimed to only get about 4 hours of sleep at night. He was a brilliant teacher, and I always wondered how he managed. However, I also wonder now how much it may be taking a toll on his body.
Let’s face it. We all need sleep. However, the amount we need varies from person to person. Although I can’t give you a set amount of time you have to get each and every night, it is well agreed upon that the typical adult needs 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night. EVERY. NIGHT. Can you say you do this on a frequent basis?
Some of you may be thinking that you can play catch up the next day. Maybe you decided to stay up late the night before watching March Madness, but you are off work the next day so you can just sleep in longer and make up for that time then. However, research has shown that it takes up to 2-3 days of healthy sleep to get back to baseline. If you are a late nighter on the weekends and use the work-week to play catch up, you are only getting back to what your body recognizes as normal before your next weekend of insomnolence occurs.
How Does Our Body Know When to Sleep?
I don’t plan to get too technical for you here, as there are a LOT of factors that go into a good night’s rest. To keep things simple, let’s imagine your brain as having a centralized click. This is better known as your suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). It is responsible for your circadian rhythm, meaning it helps control your brain’s understanding of when to be awake and when to be asleep.
There are several factors that help control sleep. One of the main contributors is melatonin. Our brain creates this substance to let us know when it is time to get tired. Now, some of you may be out there taking this at night to help you fall asleep. If so, I won’t fault you for this as there is currently no evidence to show that this inhibits the brain’s own ability to secrete the substance as well once you stop taking it. However, you may want to ask yourself WHY you are needing it so much?
Melatonin gets released from the brain when our eyes recognizes the lights around us dimming. This is mostly affected by blue light wave lengths. The more blue light that hits our retina and gets transferred to the brain, the less melatonin you produce. When the lights are dim and the sun goes down, our brains get less blue light stimulation, thus melatonin gets released. At least, that is how it is supposed to work.
The problem is that we have these things called screens. You are using one right now. They also produce light, including blue wave lengths. As you use these artificial light sources, they continue to stimulate your brain’s understanding of when it is day time and when it is night.
Using the screen during the day is probably not too problematic for sleep as that is when you are supposed to be exposed to this light. However, our screens at home exhibit the same light sources. If your brain gets exposed to the same type of light at work as it does when you are trying to relax in the evening, it has no idea when you are supposed to be tired.
One way to counter this is using blue light blockers, either via screen blockers or glasses. This may help to an extent, however there are a few issues. One is that using these blockers during the day while at work (or for kids doing virtual learning) will lead to an increase in melatonin production during the day (possibly making you more tired then), whereas at home most people will not use these blue blockers, leading to an increase in melatonin inhibition at night. Also, many of these blue blockers will block a different amount of light depending on the product, so just buying one off the shelf may not be beneficial.
When our body is getting ready to go to sleep and is entering the early stages of being tired, our blood pressure drops. This is controlled by various factors in the body, and improvement of this control is obtained via frequent exercise. When you work out your body becomes better at managing your blood pressure. This is due to an increase in sympathetic tone (and other factors). When your blood pressure is up your body knows it is time to be awake. When you lay down at the end of the day, your body is better equipped to lower your blood pressure and take you into repose.
I won’t get too detailed here, however your food affects your body in various ways, including how you sleep. Balancing out your nutrition throughout the day can affect your sleep, and if you feel like this is a contributing factor then I would recommend seeing your physician or dietician to determine how to better fuel your body for the day and night.
Negative Affects of Poor Sleep on the Body
As I mentioned above, there are many health issues that arise when getting poor sleep. Studies have shown that sleep deprived residents (physicians in training) drive similarly to a drunk driver based on their reaction time. This led to a change in resident hours allowed to work across our country. However, many of us still choose not to get enough sleep at night, which may be slowing you down.
A lack of sleep negatively affects your brain’s ability to manage things like anxiety, depression, and fear. There is a reason that poor sleep goes hand-in-hand with mental health complications. It is also more difficult to handle your child’s tantrums when your own brain isn’t up to par. If you or a loved one struggles with any of these issues, one of the first places you should look is the sleep routine.
Cancer and Sleep
This topic is near and dear to me, so I wanted to focus more on it here. It has been shown that getting enough sleep improves your immune system. You get an increase in various cytokines and cells that help fight off viruses, bacteria, and even cancer cells. Some examples of those are IL-1, IL-2, and TNF-alpha.
In a previous post I spoke about COVID variants and how viruses are constantly changing. The same can be said about the human body, and there is always a chance that your cells become precursors for cancer development. The cytokines mentioned above help kill these abnormal cells off, allowing you to go unaware of their existence.
However, a lack of sleep can increase another type of cytokine, IL-10. An increased concentration of this in your body has been shown to increase the risk of prostate cancer, colorectal cancer, acute myeloid leukemia, endometrial cancer, and breast cancer. There is a strong family history of cancer on my dad’s side of the family. Obviously, I am already at risk.
Change Your Sleep to Be a Healthier and Happier You
When it is time to go to bed at night, it is easy to read one more chapter, watch one more episode, or simply desire to zone out a little longer. We all do it. But this lack of sleep IS negatively affecting YOUR HEALTH. It affects your ability to parent your kids. It affects your body’s ability to stay healthy. It affects your brain’s ability to deal with mental health complications. If you can’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to take care of anyone else.
And for that matter, check in on your kids. How is their sleep? If they struggle with fatigue, poor focus, mental health issues, or other health problems, see if their sleep schedule is off. If you fix that, you would be amazed out how much can change.
Imperfect Dad, MD