Our nation’s health and our medical system are being swamped by an epidemic of obesity and overweight. If you don’t read the health news (like I do), just look around you the next time you’re in a public place. It’s clear that Americans have grown way too fat.

But are you aware of a second seismic shift that is also changing the nature of America’s health?

It’s an epidemic of inadequate sleep. And now it’s becoming clear that these two major public health factors are interconnected.

A series of surveys taken over the years paints a sorry picture:

Chat showing increasing rate of poor sleep

Six hours of sleep (or less) is simply not enough. Most people can benefit from at least seven hours – and eight or more are even better.

You might think that you run on a different time clock than the rest of us, and that 5 or 6 hours a night is fine. But most likely you’re only kidding yourself, and harming your health in the process.

Poor sleep is linked to a lengthy list of health problems.

  • Overweight – that’s why these two epidemics are linked to each other: poor sleep causes weight gain, weight gain causes poor sleep
  • Depression (and all the other negative health consequences that flow from it)
  • Mood swings
  • Hormone imbalance
  • Loss of insulin sensitivity (leading to diabetes)
  • Sore muscles and achy joints
  • Chronic pain
  • Poor concentration
  • Higher risk of auto crashes and other potentially avoidable injuries
  • High blood pressure and increased risk for cardiovascular complications

man asleepWhy are Americans not getting their snooze-worth?

A number of theories have been proposed to explain our national sleep deficit.

Are we overworking and experiencing too much stress? It’s true that Americans are working longer hours and taking fewer vacation days than in the past.

Are noise and light pollution finally catching up to us?

Whatever the reason, it’s time to take back your night. Here’s how:

  • Keep to a routine bedtime. Your brain likes to run on pre-set programs. If you train yourself to fall asleep at a particular hour, your brain will automatically start to feel tired when that time of the evening rolls around.
  • Enjoy healthful physical activity during the day. It doesn’t have to be intense – even 20-30 minutes of light activity is way better than sitting on your butt all day, then lounging on the sofa in the evening.
  • Darken your room or wear a sleep mask. Light that seeps into your room at night is a sure-fire killer of your beneficial deep-sleep brain waves.
  • Quiet! If your room isn’t quiet, pop in a pair of ear plugs before you roll into bed.
  • Avoid eating within an hour or two of bedtime.
  • Backlit computer and phone screens awaken your brain. Avoid them for an hour before bedtime. Instead, curl up with a good book.
  • Time for a new mattress? Or pillow? Nothing ruins a good night’s sleep more than an uncomfortable position to sleep in. Investing in a new mattress or pillow might make a significant difference.
  • Sleep apnea – a medical condition in which your breathing gets interrupted while you’re asleep – has become a fairly common problem. If you get up each morning without feeling fully rested, or if you have another reason to suspect that sleep apnea is a problem, consult your physician.
  • If you work at odd hours, or worse yet, if you work shifts that constantly rotate through different times of the day and night, you’re at particular risk. Not everyone can negotiate work scheduling policies on the job, let alone change jobs if needed. But do whatever you can to make your life manageable.

These good-sleep strategies are easy ways to give a boost to your health future.

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