When you're spent, your healthy habits tend to disappear. Fatigue makes the body crave a quick hit of energy--otherwise known as a high-calorie carb-fest. (Ever hit a fast-food drive-through after a rough night?) Going to the gym, a smarter pick-me- up, can seem about as doable as taking a trip to Mars, which is why nearly 50 percent of women report skipping exercise when they're beat, according to the NSF.
Habitually skimping on shut-eye can also lead to chronic health problems or worsen preexisting ailments. "Sleep deprivation is cumulative," says Lankford.
"If someone needs eight hours a night and gets only six every night for a week, by Friday she will be functioning on sleep debt." Long term, that can spell malfunctioning hormones that pave the way for increased risks of depression, heart problems, gastrointestinal issues, type 2 diabetes, and breast and colorectal cancers. (Breast cancer, for example, has been linked to high levels of estrogen and low levels of melatonin; production of both of these hormones is affected when you're sleep deprived.)
Hitting the Bottle
Tossing and turning night after night can make a person desperate enough to storm her doc's office. But instead of searching for the root causes of insomnia, many physicians simply whip out their prescription pads. "Until recently, many doctors were not trained in sleep treatment in med school," says Maas. "Of the 90 or so sleep disorders, most physicians can name around four. Many hand over pills because they don't know how else to solve the problem." To wit, a whopping 60 million sleep prescriptions were filled in 2009, according to research firm IMS Health.
All this pill popping has ushered in a new set of problems. For one thing, some sleep drugs are addictive, especially older ones such as benzodiazepines. Even the new class of nonbenzos can be habit forming, says sleep doctor Shelby Freedman Harris, Psy.D., director of behavioral sleep medicine at Montefiore Medical Center's Sleep-Wake Disorders Center in New York City. "Though people are not hooked on them physiologically, they can develop a psychological dependence and think they'll never sleep if they don't take a pill," she says. Rare but scary side effects include things like memory loss and sleepwalking, sleep driving, or sleep sex. Plus, says Westbrook, no studies show what extended use of these drugs does to your body.
"The bottom line is that prescription sleeping pills are a short-term solution," says Maas. Simply put, drugs may be a godsend for temporary insomnia, but continuous use could be dangerous.
"Taking a pill won't get to the underlying issue," says Westbrook. Most frightening of all, "insomnia can be a symptom of depression, and depressed patients who take sleeping pills have an increased risk of suicide." Likewise, sleep apnea, when treated with Rx sleep meds, can turn fatal.
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Put Sleep Issues to Rest
A safer and more effective cure for sleep problems lies in improving what doctors call sleep hygiene, a combination of natural snooze-inducing practices. Clean up your slumber routine with these tricks: