A woman sits up in bed and crosses her arms over her knees.
A restless night may be the result of poor habits before bedtime. A helpful hint: Leave the cell phone out of the bedroom. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Sleep is everything. It needs to be a high priority for all of us to be happy and healthy.

It is truly the basis of good health, because it gives our brains a chance to rest and process the events of the day and then make brain chemicals for the next day.

Do you have trouble sleeping? If so, you’re probably dealing with a host of negative side effects.

Without sleep, we may experience bad moods and perform poorly at work, at school or at home with our families. A lack of sleep also puts us at risk for heart disease, diabetes and depression.

Researchers have spent years analyzing sleep patterns to learn why sleep is so important to our overall health and wellness. Their observational studies of people with and without good sleep patterns show a strong effect on chronic disease.

People who get less sleep have a higher risk of being overweight, developing diabetes, experiencing high blood pressure and having a heart attack. Overall, these people have a lower life expectancy than those who get a consistent eight hours of sleep each night.

Typically, those who consistently sleep less than six hours a night are plagued with the highest weight, while those who sleep eight hours or more have the lowest weight.

Is it really that simple? For the most part, yes.

Less sleep leads to a rise in cortisol—our stress hormone—and also causes a rise in insulin, which promotes belly fat storage. Decreased amounts of sleep also cause an increase in ghrelin—a brain hormone that stimulates appetite—and a decrease in leptin, which signals when we feel full.

Of course, it goes without saying that when we don’t have enough sleep, we don’t feel like exercising and we often gain weight due to inactivity.

Unfortunately, sleep (or a lack of it) can have a strong effect on our moods and coping skills. Lack of sleep puts people at a greater risk for depression, anxiety and mental stress. All of this makes it difficult for these people to remain optimistic and thrive in social situations.

The bottom line? To be happy, sleep is a prerequisite.

We know we should be getting our sleep, but what really happens when we are having trouble sleeping?

There are several different types of sleep problems that can cause us to sleep less than we should at night.

Sleep disorders  

Chronic insomnia, narcolepsy, sleep apnea and parasomnias are some of the more common sleep issues my patients experience.

Insomnia can be a result of too much overstimulation from watching TV or working on a computer late at night. Consumption of alcohol, sugary foods or caffeine before bed can also interfere with the ability to fall asleep easily.

Insomnia can be caused by taking certain medications such as antidepressants, oral steroids or allergy pills. Medical conditions that cause pain—arthritis, for example, or breathing problems such as asthma—can also be underlying causes of insomnia.

The good news is that insomnia can be improved.

The best treatment starts with awareness, which begins with a close examination of our habits and rituals around bedtime. Turning off the computer or TV several hours before going to bed can help you fall asleep more quickly. Sometimes, prescription medications or over-the-counter remedies can also be helpful.

Narcolepsy, associated with excessive daytime sleepiness, can be genetically linked. A diagnosis of narcolepsy can be determined with a sleep study.

Medications aimed at improving sleep quality and stimulating daytime wakefulness are typically prescribed to help with this condition.

Sleep apnea, typically linked to obesity and heart disease, is also diagnosed by completing a sleep study.

Treatments for sleep apnea range from changing sleep positions to using a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure machine to keep airways open.

Weight loss is also an effective treatment for sleep apnea.

Parasomnias occur when people are fearful of going to sleep because they are afraid of what might happen to them during sleep. Night terrors, sleepwalking or sleep eating without memory are common things they may fear.

Sleepless nights

Many women come to see me because they are having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep during the night.

A woman I’ll call Jane is one of those patients.

At age 49, she began experiencing irregular periods, night sweats and disturbed sleep around the time of her period. She led a very busy life with teenagers, a husband who traveled for work and parents who required more care.

Her sleep issue was causing problems in her life.

Jane would have difficulty falling asleep and, if she woke up during the night, she had trouble getting back to sleep because her mind would start racing and she couldn’t turn it off.

As a result, she was chronically tired and unmotivated to exercise. She began to gain weight. She felt irritable and crabby most days and she just didn’t know how to get off the roller coaster.

Jane had tried to fix her sleep problems by herself, but it wasn’t working.

She tried every tea and over-the-counter medicine she could find, including melatonin. She had recently resorted to drinking a glass of wine in the evening, but that just made her feel even less rested.

It was time for a new plan for Jane.

Simple changes

We started by discussing what she probably already knew: Lack of good sleep made her very unhealthy and caused her bad moods.

I then explained the correlation between hormones and brain chemicals.

We worked on deconstructing her nighttime routine. I asked her how she could structure her day so she wouldn’t have so many chores to complete at night, leaving her more time to prepare for the next day.

As Jane talked out loud to me, she realized she could make some simple changes—packing lunches and doing a load of laundry at night—that could help her be more efficient in the morning.

I then pressed Jane about making time for herself before bed.

I also made some suggestions.

I recommended that she write down her worries or duties on paper and then make a list for the next day (or several days), detailing how she would conquer these obligations.

Other suggestions I made: Avoid screen time 30 minutes before bed, refrain from alcohol in the evening, write in a gratitude journal before going to sleep.

And, finally, I suggested that Jane practice metered breathing every night before going to bed.

Metered breathing is a technique I discuss with many of my patients to help them fall asleep at night or get back to sleep if they wake in the middle of the night.

Here’s how it works:

  • Find a quiet place in your home and sit in a comfortable chair.
  • Begin staring at a spot somewhere in the room and focus on the sound of your breathing.
  • Continue breathing like this for five minutes, uninterrupted.

I felt confident Jane’s plan would be effective if she followed it. After tracking her progress, we would consider menopause hormone therapy to treat her night sweats if they continued to be an issue.

Jane took my recommendations seriously and changed her routine. She began to sleep again and she started exercising, lost some weight and improved her overall mood.

More than anything, she felt like herself again.