Fitness Coach

Feel the burn, sleepyhead?     Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Q:

How Bad for You Is Insomnia, Really?

A:Sorry, night owls. Regardless of whether you feel fine during the day, consistently losing out on sleep can have serious consequences to your health and well-being. Case in point: A Chinese study published last week revealed that 18- to 34-year-olds insomniacs are eight times more likely to suffer a stroke than their sound-sleeping peers.

This particular study looked at more than 21,000 people who'd been diagnosed with insomnia and 64,000 normal sleepers. The researchers found that the association between stroke and lack of shut-eye was highest in young adults; beyond age 35, the link became much weaker.

Exactly why insomnia raises stroke risk isn't entirely clear, but the study authors say it likely has to do with increased levels of inflammation in the body. Without adequate sleep—for most people, that's six to nine hours a night—the nervous system goes into fight-or-flight mode, producing excess stress hormones which, in turn, produce dangerous inflammation. (In addition to raising your stroke risk, chronic inflammation can also contribute to cardiovascular problems, diabetes, and obesity.)

Even just a few nights of tossing and turning can impact your health, says psychiatrist and psychotherapist Marlynn Wei, M.D.: "If you're playing sports or working out, you may notice delayed reaction times and compromised strength and performance," she says. "Physical appearance can also take a dive, since those stress hormones can contribute to breakouts, puffy eyes, and weight gain." And you'll probably be the last to realize it, but chances are your mood and memory are being negatively affected as well. In fact, a recent animal study suggests that lack of sleep may lead to permanent loss of brain cells.  

Bottom line: Even if you're not falling asleep at the wheel, your insomnia could contribute to serious health issues. See your doctors to discuss treatment options, like medication, cognitive behavioral therapy, or better sleep hygiene—and while you're there, have your cardiovascular and stroke risk factors evaluated, too.

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