A good night’s sleep is good for your health
A recent headline, “Common sleeping pills muffle your sleeping brain’s ‘intruder alert,’ ” made us think of the saying, “You snooze; you lose.” But while that may be true when you’re behind the wheel or sleepwalking from sleeping pills, it couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to the importance of good sleep for good health.
This is a serious issue because 35 percent of U.S. adults aren’t getting the needed seven hours of shut-eye nightly, according to a 2016 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. South Dakotans were most likely to get enough sleep — fully 72 percent do! Hawaiians get the least; only 56 percent report seven hours nightly. And 48 percent of Americans have occasional insomnia, while 33 percent say it’s a nightly or nearnightly torment.
No wonder Americans spent $230 million on over-the-counter sleep meds — accounting for 85 percent of sleep aids used. The other 15 percent are prescription meds such as Ambien and Lunesta. A CDC report found that about 4 percent of U.S. adults (almost 10 million people) used prescription sleep aids in the past month.
Eyes wide open
A combination of two factors is making a good night’s sleep ever more rare — and making sleep itself risky business! Fortunately, you can change that — but first, those two …
1. A dysfunctional stress response is the No. 1 sleep destroyer, making it hard to fall asleep and triggering disturbing dreams. Then, lack of sleep boosts your levels of stress hormones, and you’re in a vicious cycle.
An American Psychological Association 2017 survey, called “Stress in America,” found that money, work and the future of the nation (in terms of health care, the economy, crime, climate change and terrorism) rank as the top three stressors. A Gallup poll found that 44 percent of adults say they frequently feel stressed during the day; 35 percent say they sometimes do.
2. Chronic pain is a close second. Fifty million Americans deal with persistent pain and around 20 million have “pain severe enough that it frequently limits life or work activities.” That’s why so many folks depend on OTC and Rx pain meds to control pain and sleeping pills to help them snooze.
In fact, the number of Americans taking both pain-killing opioids (like Percocet or OxyContin) and benzodiazepines (such as Valium or Xanax — commonly prescribed for insomnia as well as for pain and anxiety) increased by 250 percent over a 15-year period. And there was an 850 percent increase in patients taking other benzodiazepines and so-called Z-drugs (Ambien and Sonata) on the same nights, according to a new study published in the journal Sleep. That’s millions of people, say the researchers, who are at serious risk for addiction/ dependency, as well as breathing problems and early death.
Another risk: Benzodiazepines may help you sleep, but researchers from Japan who tested this in mice say they also make it so you’d sleep through an intruder, fire or earthquake! No wonder these drugs are called hypnotics.
For better z’s
1. Move. No matter what your physical abilities, use your legs for at least 30 minutes a day. Get up and move around every 2030 minutes when sitting. Over time, increase your physical activity to include interval aerobics (five or more days a week) and strength training (two times a week).
2. Meditate. Set aside 12 minutes a day to meditate. Be quiet — no cells, no music, no internet. Sit in a comfortable position with good posture. Breathe in through your nose slowly for four seconds and exhale slowly through an open mouth for as long as you can. Build to eight seconds. Repeat the breathing rhythm while you let your mind drift. Recognize thoughts as they appear, and let them go. Say “Om-m-m,” and you’ll feel clearer and stronger.
3. Make the bedroom sleep-ready: No light (except nightlights emitting red wavelengths). No TV or phone. Use earplugs and eyeshades to limit light and sounds; maintain cool temp; use warm blankets.
Chocolate powers and chocolate myths
“The greatest tragedies were written by the Greeks and Shakespeare … neither knew chocolate,” says Sandra Boynton, the author of the beloved birthday card “Hippo Birdie Two Ewes” and more than 50 children’s books.
Is that another reason Americans are feeling blue? Could be. The kind of chocolate you and your neighbors eat is often super-processed milk and white chocolates, which are stripped of many of the magic bean’s benefits — that’s about as bad as (or worse than) having no chocolate at all!
Instead, enjoy 70 percent cacao dark chocolate. It’s loaded with cocoa solids that contain health-boosting compounds like flavonoids. Enjoy hot chocolate made with walnut or almond milk (make sure they don’t contain the emulsifier carrageenan) and natural, unsweetened cocoa powder. It contains more flavonols (a type of flavonoid) than cocoa powder that’s Dutch-processed or alkalized.
Research shows that chocolate helps control blood pressure, fights cancer and neurodegenerative diseases, and improves athletic performance. But what it cannot do — at least not without help from other additives in a cough syrup — is treat your winter hack.
Despite headlines declaring chocolate is more effective than cough medicine, the researcher who published the study that gave rise to that claim makes it clear in an article on Health.com that the tested cough syrup, which contained the cocoa-based compound theobromine and antihistamine diphenhydramine, isn’t the same as a chocolate candy or drink.
So enjoy a daily ounce of dark chocolate for its health boost and flavor, and see your doc for reliable treatments for a dry or wet cough.
Q: I hear that sunscreens damage coral reefs. Are we supposed to not go into the ocean if we apply sunscreen at the beach? Or should we just skip sunscreen all together? Karl D., Houston
A: Anytime you go to the beach or spend any time outside (remember you can get a bad burn on the slopes!) you should apply sunscreen that contains micronized zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. You want to avoid sunscreens with octocrylene and oxybenzone. The Environmental Working Group also advises against 4MBC, butylparaben and octinoxate. (Octocrylene shows up in hair products and cosmetics, too.)
Hawaii’s ban on those chemical sunscreens takes effect in 2021 and, most recently, Key West instituted a ban as well. The small Pacific island of Palau banned all those chemicals and more in sunscreens under their Responsible Tourism Education Act of 2018 and will fine people $1,000 per violation starting in 2020.
What’s the issue? Over time, those chemicals build up on coral (remember these are living animals) and disrupt the mitochondria in their cells. Those are the little engines in every cell that power respiration and energy production. Abnormal fatty acid metabolism is another type of mitochondrial dysfunction; it’s related specifically to octocrylene — and scientists now believe the effects of octocrylene on coral have been vastly underestimated.
Remember, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are not harmful to coral, and they’re what we’ve always recommended. Titanium dioxide turns gray if you sweat, so we really recommend micronized zinc oxide. They offer the most effective protection for your skin. Whenever you’re outside, get in the habit of using an eco-friendly sunscreen (minimum 35 SPF).
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 48 percent of Americans suffer occasional insomnia.
Key West and Hawaii are taking steps to ban the types of sunscreens experts say can damage coral reefs.