A recent study in the journal Hypertension, reports that women who are sleep deprived have a greater risk than men of developing high blood pressure (hypertension). Nearly 7,000 people were evaluated in Warwick, Britain. Women who slept less than five hours per night were twice as likely to have high blood pressure compared to those who slept seven or more hours. Interestingly, no such association applied to men in the study.
It is not clear from this study why exactly sleep deprivation causes high blood pressure and the other diseases mentioned. Possible answers include the tendency to eat more junk food if one is too exhausted to prepare healthier meals. The resulting obesity can lead to both diabetes and hypertension. Finally, one cannot exclude the role of increased stress from sleep deprivation in illness.
Simply telling my patients to sleep more does little to improve their health. Instead, I focus on "sleep hygiene." Pre-sleep activities such as exercise, large meals, and arguments, and adventure movies/books should be avoided for several hours prior to bed. Additionally, the bed is for two major activities: sleep and (guess the other one). Everything else, including eating, watching TV, reading, arguing, etc. should occur outside the bed. If you can't fall asleep, don't toss and turn. Instead, get out of bed, read a book or listen to some relaxing music and then return to bed once tired. There are of course many more aspects to getting a good night's sleep and these should be addressed with your doctor.
Medical illness and pharmacologic treatment need to be discussed when discussing insomnia. There are conditions such as sleep apnea that severely disrupt sleep. Sleep apnea is common in the very obese. Those with sleep apnea can stop breathing for several seconds or minutes. Loud snoring and sudden awakening gasping for air are common. The frequent waking causes daytime sleepiness and has led to many car accidents. The diagnosis of sleep apnea can be made after careful observation in a sleep laboratory. There, various monitors are attached to you and monitor your vital signs and neurological status while sleeping. The data helps make the diagnosis of sleep apnea. The use of special breathing machines can alleviate some of the sleep apnea symptoms. If you think you may have sleep apnea bring this to the attention of your doctor. The treatment may change your life.
There are also medications that can help you sleep. Diagnosis and treatment of such issues as well as prescribing the appropriate medication should be discussed with your doctor.
Read a related article by Craig Stoltz entitled "Sleep: Not too Little, Not too Much."