Take a Nap, Doctor's Orders
Ask me what I think the top stressor for most modern men is, and I’ll always give you the same answer: lack of proper sleep. The average amount of sleep we clock most nights has been nosediving since the advent of modern technology. And its effects on your body are staggering, to say the least.
The doggy bag message couldn’t be more straightforward: If you want to stay healthy, you need to sleep. Wisdom doesn’t really get more conventional than this. Yet I still see too many patients who think it’s a complete waste of time — or that five hours a night is “good enough.”
Well, it’s not. But in case you need more convincing, there’s a new study on the cost of lost sleep making headlines. And with another Labor Day behind us — and a fresh cold and flu season closing in — the timing couldn’t be better...
As part of this new study, researchers rounded up over 150 recruits, all of whom underwent two months worth of health screenings, along with a full week of sleep assessment. (These scientists used a sensor to evaluate sleep quality for the duration of each night.)
Once this baseline info was gathered, researchers exposed the volunteers to a live cold virus via nasal spray. Then, they monitored subjects for the rest of the week, using daily samples of mucous to establish the presence of infection.
Their findings: Compared to those who slept more than seven hours nightly, subjects who clocked fewer than six hours per night in the week before the viral exposure were 4.2 times more likely to catch a cold. And if they slept fewer than five hours, that risk crept even higher, to 4.5.1
In other words, losing even an hour of sleep more than quadrupled the risk of getting sick.
What’s more, the association held regardless of age, sex, stress levels, income bracket — even smoking status. So needless to say, everyone should be taking note. Because — pardon the pun here — no one is immune to the effects of poor sleep.
But this study’s also important because it didn’t just rely on subjects’ memories of their habits to reach its conclusions. There was no fudging numbers or estimation involved. Researchers worked from very precise measurements of nightly sleep. And it’s a good thing, too — because clearly, even the smallest loss can have a pretty catastrophic impact.
And there’s a very good reason for this. Two reasons, in fact: melatonin and cortisol.
Melatonin is the hormone responsible for regulating your sleep cycles. It’s also a powerful antioxidant that fights free radicals and helps your body to suppress the production of estrogen (a definite factor in low testosterone, and a possible contributor to prostate cancer, according to recent research).
If you consistently fail to make it through all your sleep phases at night, your body will almost certainly end up producing less melatonin. And this inhibits your immune system — not to mention your resistance to many types of cancers.
Cortisol, on the other hand, is one of your body’s main stress hormones. Levels typically peak at dawn, after hours of sleep, and decline throughout the day. Not getting enough shut eye stresses your body and throws cortisol levels out of whack. And if cortisol release continues throughout the whole day and night — not just in the morning when you wake — then this can contribute to cancer progression, too.
Excess cortisol weakens your immunity, especially white blood cells, natural killer cells, monocytes, and macrophages. And weak immune cells do more than just lower your defenses against the flu and common cold. They also give free reign to other foreign invaders in your body... most notably, cancer cells.
So let me repeat: You need to sleep. As always, between seven and eight hours is the sweet spot. And this specific range is critical, not just for avoiding the virus du jour.
This particular study didn’t focus on longer sleep times beyond “seven hours or more.” But it’s worth noting that the idea that more is better — or that eight hours a day is the magic number — simply isn’t true.
In fact, a six-year study of more than 1 million adults ages 30 to 102 showed that people who get six to seven hours of sleep per night have a lower death rate. But that people who sleep outside of that range on either end — less than four hours or more than eight hours — suffer a significantly higher death rate.2
Another lengthy 2010 study of nearly 4,000 older Spanish adults showed that sleeping fewer than five hours a night nearly doubled the risk of death. But that sleeping eight, nine, or ten hours a night also raised risk of death by 34%, 48%, and 73% respectively.3
And just this year, researchers at the University of Cambridge found that people who clocked fewer than six hours a night had an 18% higher risk of stroke. But that people who slept longer than eight hours nightly faced nearly double the risk, compared to subjects who slept between six and eight hours per day.4
This is just a sampling of the research out there. So clearly, we’re talking about a Goldilocks-style bell curve here. One that you really can’t afford to fall out of step with.
Bottom line? Get at least six hours of sleep each and every night. Preferably seven — and no more than eight. If you lose sleep one night because life happens, go ahead and squeeze in a power nap.
But don’t make it a habit. Because this is yet another case where moderation wins the day... and the night.
Stay tuned and stay well,
Geo Espinosa, N.D., L.Ac, C.N.S., is a renowned naturopathic doctor recognized as an authority in integrative management of male and urological conditions. Dr. Geo is the founder and director of the Integrative Urology Center at New York University Langone Medical Center (NYULMC), a center of excellence in research and integrative treatments for urological conditions.
1. Prather AA, et al. Sleep. 2015 Jan 17.
2. Spurgeon D. BMJ. 2002 Feb 23; 324(7335): 446.
3. Mesas AE, et al. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2010 Oct;58(10):1870-7.
4. Leng Y, et al. Neurology. 2015 Mar 17;84(11):1072-9.