Fresh and Fit: How poor sleep habits could be hurting you

There's a lot of interest about why 40 percent of Americans get less sleep per night than doctors recommend, but I think the biggest reason is that people don't take sleep seriously enough. That's why I decided to look into new research that sheds some light on just how many health concerns could be springing up because of poor-quality sleep or lack of sleep.

I talked in a previous article about the importance of enjoying sleep for its own sake. Sleep shouldn't only be about refueling for the next challenges that'll come your way. You need to turn your brain off and enjoy your rest. Otherwise, you run the risk of some common poor sleep-related problems: weight gain, aged and unhealthy skin, premature death, lower cognitive function, lack of sex drive and depression. Those are the big ones that are more commonly known, but it doesn't stop there. Here are some more reasons why sleep apnea and poor sleep habits could be hurting you.

Sleep drunkenness can happen.
Sleep drunkenness is a condition where a person wakes in a confused state, not knowing where they are. In the most extreme cases, it could result in violent behavior or amnesia of the episode. The condition may affect one in seven people, and though it's clear that these episodes can disrupt normal sleep patterns, the full effects on someone's health are not yet known.

What researchers have found is that sleep drunkenness is more likely to occur in people who sleep less than six hours a night (20 percent of study participants) or more than nine hours a night (15 percent), and that those people suffering from sleep apnea were also more commonly linked to this problem.

The problem often goes away on its own by sleeping enough. That means sleeping seven to eight hours a night, going to sleep and waking at approximately the same times every day, and following a practiced bedtime regimen. Of course, if you suffer from sleep apnea, you should speak to your doctor about fixing that problem.

It could lead to dementia.
One study, published by the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, linked people with sleep apnea and those who spend less time in deep sleep with changes in the brain often associated with dementia. Participants of this study who were found to have less oxygen in their blood during sleep—which is associated with sleep apnea and emphysema—were more likely to have micro infarcts, tiny abnormalities in brain tissue that have been linked with dementia. Those subjects who spent less time in deep sleep, or slow wave sleep, were more likely to have loss of brain cells than those who spent more time in deep sleep. This is concerning because loss of brain cells is associated with Alzheimer's and dementia.

It can damage your cells.
Scientists at the Medical College of Wisconsin found a link between sleep deprivation and damage to cells, especially in the liver, lung and small intestine. Thankfully, recovery sleep restored the balance between DNA damage and repaired damaged cells. The authors of this study believe their work shows a link between lack of sleep and a predisposition to cell abnormalities and disease, but it's worth noting a couple things.

The study was performed on rats, and the direct effects of sleep deprivation on humans were not studied. The rats studied underwent only 10 days of sleep deprivation, and although cell damage could be a precursor to disease, the study was not extensive enough to prove a definitive correlation. Still, if our lack of sleep could be damaging internal organs, that's all the more reason to recover those lost hours.

You might be worrying even more.
Our brains won't stop going sometimes, no matter what we seem to try. With that in mind, one group of researchers looked at how to stop the problem before it ever arises.

Their study found that people who sleep for shorter periods of time and go to bed later often experience more repetitive negative thoughts than others. You may consider yourself a night owl, but although staying up late may be a lot of fun, it might also be part of the reason you're stressing so much. At the same time, sleep disruptions—such as could occur because of sleep apnea or sleep drunkenness—could also be hindering your quality of life.

Proper sleep could protect you from cancer.
Virginia Tech biologists found that the human period 2 protein, which is responsible for regulating the body's sleep cycle (circadian rhythm), also protects the body from developing sporadic forms of cancer. When sleep cycles are disrupted, this protein's ability to function is impaired, thus making it unable to prevent cell division at certain times of the day. This is problematic because over 80 percent of cancer cases are caused by mutations of tumor suppressor genes, thus highlighting the importance of properly functioning human period 2 proteins.

Lack of sleep can cause even more problems with sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea now affects at least 25 million Americans, and it increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and depression. Here are some other associated problems:

—It can restrict the effectiveness of blood pressure medication.

—It limits your exercise capacity and aerobic fitness.

—It has been linked with increased nocturnal cardiac arrhythmias.

—It causes functional and anatomical changes in the brainstem regions.

What's the good news, then? Well, the problems associated with sleep apnea can be eliminated or significantly improved through proper treatment of this issue. If you or someone you love is suffering from sleep apnea, visit this site

Jay McKenzie loves soccer, history and feeling great. He's on a quest to eat better and exercise more, and he wants to share his experiences along the way. You can email him at jaymckenzie86@gmail.com with comments or questions. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.