An unfortunate part of our modern-day busy lifestyle is chronic sleep deprivation. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), lack of sleep has become a major public health concern, with insufficient rest being linked to medical problems, accidents and occupational hazards. People who regularly stay awake for too long are at a higher risk of developing illnesses like high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, cancer, and also mental issues like depression and memory loss, the agency warns.
While many young people may feel they can burn the proverbial midnight oil without paying much of a price, shortage of sleep and sleep disruption can wreak havoc on their middle-aged and older counterparts in ways not truly appreciated until recently.
A new study from the University of Toronto, Canada, found that older people who have trouble sleeping are in greater danger of suffering a stroke and/or other mental health problems like memory loss and dementia.
Waking up several times during the night, a.k.a. sleep fragmentation, is tied to subtle changes in the brain due to hardening of the arteries, which can lead to reduced oxygen supply and, in turn, to more serious damages like strokes, says Dr. Andrew Lim, a neurologist and lead author of the study report.
But it's not just the elderly who should adhere to a healthy sleep regimen. Just one single restless night can negatively affect mood, concentration, attention span and other cognitive functions in people of all ages. In fact, as one study found, a night of disturbed sleep is like having a regular eight-hour sleep period cut in half.
Several consecutive phases of fragmented rest could result in negative health consequences on par with chronic sleeplessness, according to Dr. Avi Sadeh, a clinical psychologist at Tel Aviv University, Israel, and leader of the research project.
While sleep disturbances can occur throughout life, it gets harder to stay asleep as we age, for multiple reasons. Stress, anxiety, changes in the body's internal clock, chronic diseases, certain medications, consumption of alcohol and caffeine, or use of nicotine and drugs can all be contributing factors. And, of course, diet also plays a role.
According to one study, a high intake of saturated fat and sugar is associated with lighter, less restorative, and more disrupted sleep. By contrast, eating greater amounts of fiber, as found in plant-based foods, can help enhance sleep quality.
Besides diet, regular exercise is also recommended for improving one's restfulness. Physical activity does not only tire us out in a good way, it also reduces stress and lowers the risk of weight gain and related diseases -- all of which are known to interfere with sleep.
In other words, the better we take care of your health needs in the daytime, the better we can rest at night.
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We probably don't have to explain why you shouldn't reach for an espresso at 10 p.m. But, turns out, your afternoon coffee habit can affect you for longer than you'd expect. In fact, that caffeine can remain in your system for hours, making even a 4 p.m. pick-me-up a bad idea. Baron recommends steering clear by the early afternoon. And don't forget coffee-flavored treats, she warns. Your favorite cappuccino-flavored ice cream can give you a surprisingly strong jolt. Of course, you've probably heard that a little tea before bed is a good idea. The caffeine content is smaller than in coffee, and herbal "sleepy time" varieties often contain sleep-promoting herbs like valerian or chamomile that can, indeed, help you nod off.
Even if you know to avoid coffee and strong tea, you might be sabotaging your sleep with sneakier sources of caffeine, like chocolate. Dark chocolate, in particular, can pack a significant punch, says Baron, although it varies by brand. If you like to nibble on a square or two for dessert, you'll probably be fine, she says -- but an entire chocolate bar could have just as much caffeine as a soda. If you wouldn't drink one close to bed, you probably shouldn't indulge in a chocolate bar either.
Baron calls alcohol the "number one drug used for sleep," and it can, indeed, be tempting to unwind before bed with a glass of your favorite adult beverage. But you won't be doing yourself any sleep favors. While it might help you nod off initially, alcohol is disruptive to the later stages of sleep, which are important to memory and motor skills, according to recent research. And while alcohol might fuel deep sleep in the beginning of the night, the second half of your slumber will likely be more interrupted and full of strange dreams, Baron says, leaving you exhausted the next day.
You already know they're tough on your heart, but it turns out that fatty foods might also disrupt your sleep. A 2012 study found that a high-fat diet caused rats to sleep more during the day, an outcome with marked similarities to the daytime sleepiness experienced by many people who are overweight. The rats also had more fragmented, interrupted sleep, wrote Dr. Michael J. Breus in a HuffPost blog. A brain chemical called orexin might explain this relationship, since it's involved in both appetite and regulating the body's internal sleep-wake clock. Earlier research has also suggested a link between high-fat foods and disruptions to these circadian rhythms. Fatty foods can also lead to a general feeling of discomfort, Baron says, that can make falling asleep tricky. She suggests staying away from any sizable portions, as well as heavy, greasy foods too close to bed.
"Your body's not designed to be digesting food when it's sleeping," Baron says. Protein presents a particular digestion problem, since it's harder to break down than other nutrients, according to WebMD. That makes a meat-heavy meal a bad idea if it's too late in the evening. Of course, famed sleep-inducer turkey is also a protein. And while the bird does indeed contain tryptophan, the amino acid itself doesn't actually bring on sleepiness.
Turning up the heat is a well-known trigger for heartburn, especially if you lie down shortly after ingesting that fiery dish. But a small study suggests there may be something else at work. Researchers examined the effects of tabasco sauce and mustard on healthy men and their sleep. On the nights they ate spicy meals, they had more trouble falling asleep and got less sleep overall. The researchers noted a change in body temperature brought on by the spicy meal, the New York Times reported, which can confuse the brain, as core temperature naturally dips as bedtime approaches.
However, that doesn't mean acid reflux isn't a problem. Even if you already know to steer clear of spicy foods, fatty foods and heavy meals before bed, there are some more surprising causes of heartburn, like citrus, that also increase the stomach's acidity, and can keep you up at night, Baron explains.
We generally have nothing but praise for good old H2O, but there's no denying that too much liquid right before bed is likely to lead to, uh, interruptions, in your sleep. It's a delicate balance between staying hydrated and cutting off your fluid intake, but Baron says limiting fluid intake in the two hours leading up to bed is a good place to start. Foods with a high water content -- like a slice of watermelon for dessert -- can have you running to the loo, too. And so can that afore-mentioned cup of SleepyTime tea. "How big is that cup?" Baron says she asks patients. "Tea can be part of a nice, relaxing ritual, but if you have it an hour before bed it can have you up and using the bathroom," she says. And if you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night with a dry mouth, consider investing in a humidifier, she says, rather than keeping a glass on your bedside table.
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