Changing Your Life: Getting More Sleep Can Improve Your Health

President Bill Clinton's stamina kept him so keyed up as he travelled around the world recently that it seemed hard to keep up with him, or figure out where we would see him next.

Clinton seemed to blame his recent heart troubles -- he was fitted with stents to reopen a clogged artery –on a lack of sleep.

"I tell you what. I was quite tired over Christmas and afterward," the former president said at a recent press conference. "But from the time of the Haiti earthquake which was a month ago today, I've been working a lot without sleeping much."

And Clinton's not the only one. Lack of sleep is the most common sleep complaint among Americans, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

Researchers say lack of sleep is connected to cardiovascular disease, hypertension and high blood pressure. It also compromises the immune system, contributes to obesity and severely impairs mental judgment. Dieting might be more difficult too. Recent findings also show that when you are sleep deprived, your body actually boosts production of the hormone that makes you hungry.

But research suggests that getting just one extra hour of sleep each night could dramatically affect your health. In fact, researchers from the University of Chicago found that those who bumped up their hours of sleep, from 6 to 7 hours had a 33 percent decreased chance of having clogged arteries.

But while the thought of sleeping in may seem enticing, for many Americans, it's easier said than done.

Struggling to Stay Awake

Susan Roberts of Dahlonega, Ga. suffered from insomnia since childhood.

"I have been struggling with being sleepy all the time. Driving home from work I would have to stop and get a soda and a candy bar just to keep me awake," Roberts said. "When I do fall asleep I end up waking up every two hours."

She wakes up at 3:30 a.m. each morning and drives 53 miles one way to work -- a routine she says she finds exhausting. Yet, she's unable to rest. After many waking nights, Roberts said she felt her health and emotional well-being was at risk. Roberts eventually checked herself into the Northside Hospital Sleep Disorder Center in Atlanta.

How to Get that Extra Hour

Amid the hustle of every day stress, there are some simple steps people can take to get a better night's sleep.

"You need to set aside the time for sleep. You need a few hours to unwind before. It takes time for the brain to wind down," said Dr. Charles Czeisler, professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School.

At Northside Hospital Sleep Disorders Center Roberts was taught "sleep hygiene," -- a healthy routine that should be practiced before bed.

Stimulants -- soda, chocolate, any kind of caffeine -- should be avoided at least four hours before bed, she said. She also said that you should not exercise three to four hours prior to sleep. Eating a light meal and eliminating alcohol consumption also helps. And lights should be dimmed and the TV turned off to help prepare the mind to relax into a slumber.

Roberts even quit cleaning her house at night. "I was having a problem going to sleep," she said. "And doing heavy housework, I might as well have gone to the gym and worked out."

And calling it an earlier night may show some benefits. In a 2009 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, heart attacks in Sweden rose by 5 percent in that first week of spring, when many people were adjusting to losing an hour of sleep. In the fall when the clocks are reset, heart attacks dropped, according to the study.

"Most of these findings are so recent that the average physician is unaware of the link between chronic sleep deprivation and cardiovascular disease," said Czeisler.

After learning more about her own pre-bed habits and changing some behaviors, Roberts is now on the right track with her sleep. She's in bed by 9:30 p.m.and clocks in at least six hours of sleep-- not ideal, but a major improvement for Roberts. Many know that it is not easy to get that extra hour, but as Roberts learned, never has it been so clear that its worth trying.

"I feel more alive, I have more energy, I can get my job done," she said. "I'm not sitting at my desk falling asleep." For more information on healthy sleep habits visit UnderstandingSleep.org

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