We all instinctively know that sleep is essential for our overall health and wellness but we tend to push through our “sleepiness” and attempt to give ourselves a jolt with things like coffee and energy drinks. Chronic lack of sleep has a cumulative effect, so you cannot skimp on sleep on weekdays and then try to "catch up" over the weekend.
Sleep is vital to our long-term health because it is the window of time that allows for the body to repair and restore itself. Why do you think teenagers sleep so much and for long periods of time? It’s not because they are always lazy! They are experiencing rapid rates of growth and development and the only way that can take place is when the body is at rest. Sleep is their bodies’ innate instinct that it needs time to grow. Sleep is so powerful that it can even overcome genetic factors.
A new study of 1,800 pairs of twins found that even if you're genetically predisposed to being overweight, there is one easy thing you can do to put yourself in control of how much weight you gain.
As reported by CNN, researchers found that genes accounted for 70 percent of the differences in body mass index (BMI) in those who slept less than seven hours per night. Environmental factors, such as diet and exercise, accounted for just four percent of the differences. But in twins who slept nine or more hours per night, environmental factors shot up to 51 percent, and genetic influences dipped to 32 percent. So, sleep deprivation appears to have a significant influence over your genetic expression.
According to CNN Health:
"Getting adequate sleep, in other words, appears to dampen genetic risk and allow the influence of diet, exercise, and other controllable lifestyle factors to "surface," the researchers say." 
New data from researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham shows not getting enough sleep can increase the risk for stroke symptoms in people with a healthy body mass index who are at low risk for obstructive sleep apnea and have no history of stroke.
“We adjusted for many possible factors that could explain this increase, including hypertension, high cholesterol, sleep disordered breathing and being overweight or obese,” explains Megan Ruiter, Ph.D., the study’s lead author and a UAB post-doctoral fellow in the Division of Preventive Medicine in the School of Medicine.
“Despite controlling for other known stroke risk factors, we still found the association between sleeping less than six hours and reporting stroke symptoms, like sudden body weakness or numbness or deficits in vision,” says Ruiter.
Sleep specialist Susan Harding, M.D., who was not involved with this study, says these findings do not come as a surprise to her.
“Short sleep duration is already associated with cardiovascular death and other cardiovascular related events,” says Harding, director of UAB’s Sleep/Wake Disorders Center. “What is different with this study is that it specifically looked at people who are at a normal weight, which means they are less likely to have diabetes – which is a stroke risk factor – and found they are still at increased risk of stroke symptoms.” 
Sleeping well is one of the cornerstones of optimal health, and if you ignore your poor sleeping habits, you will, in time, pay a price. In general, you will feel best and maintain optimal health when your lifestyle is in line with your circadian rhythm. (Internal biological clock) It's wise to establish healthful routines of eating, exercising and sleeping, and to stick to them every day, including the weekends.
Unfortunately, sleep deprivation is such a chronic condition these days that you might not even realize you suffer from it. Your circadian rhythm has evolved over many years to align your physiology with your environment. However, it operates under the assumption that you are behaving as your ancestors did. Historically, humans have slept at night and stayed awake during the day. If you stay up late at night, depriving yourself of sleep, you send conflicting signals to your body.
As a result, you body gets confused and doesn't know whether it should be producing chemicals to help you sleep, or gear up for the beginning of a new day.
Without good sleep, optimal health may remain elusive, even if you eat well and exercise (although those factors will tend to improve your ability to sleep better). Aside from directly impacting your immune function, another explanation for why poor sleep can have such varied detrimental effects on your health is that your circadian system "drives" the rhythms of biological activity at the cellular level. Hence disruptions tend to cascade outward throughout your entire body. For example, besides impairing your immune function and raising your cancer risk, interrupted or impaired sleep can also:
· Increase your risk of heart disease.
· Harm your brain by halting new cell production.
· Sleep deprivation can increase levels of corticosterone (a stress hormone), resulting in fewer new brain cells being created in your hippocampus.
· Aggravate or make you more susceptible to stomach ulcers.
· Contribute to a pre-diabetic state, making you feel hungry even if you've already eaten, which can wreak havoc on your weight.
· Raise your blood pressure.
· Contribute to premature aging by interfering with your growth hormone production, normally released by your pituitary gland during deep sleep.
· Increase your risk of dying from any cause. 
Are Sleeping Pills A Viable Option…
If you have trouble sleeping, you're not alone. According to the National Sleep Foundation's (NSF) 2010 "Sleep in America Poll," only four in 10 respondents said they got a good night's sleep every night, or almost every night, of the week.  But please don't make the mistake of resorting to sleeping pills. At best, they're ineffective. At worst, they can be dangerous.
According to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) data, over-the-counter sleep products such as Tylenol PM and Excedrin PM don't offer any significant benefit to patients. In 2007, an analysis of sleeping pill studies financed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that sleeping pills like Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata reduced the average time to go to sleep by just under 13 minutes compared with sugar pills -- hardly a major improvement.
Skimping on Sleep to Work Out Could Backfire
While I do recommend exercising first thing in the morning, I don't advise sacrificing sleep to do so. Fortunately, you don't have to! The research that has emerged over the past several years clearly indicates you don't need to exercise for long periods of time—as long as you're exercising with a purpose! Both young children and animals clearly demonstrate the proper way to exercise: in short but aggressive or intense spurts with rest in between.
High intensity interval training using an elliptical machine or stationary bike or running sprints can mimic this, and a growing body of research tells us the benefits from exercising this way are FAR greater than slow, long-distance forms of exercise. Interval training can dramatically improve your cardiovascular fitness and fat-burning capabilities in a fraction of the time. I also like doing resistance/body-weight circuits where you pick 5-6 exercises and cycle through them as many times as possible in the time you have available. This approach is especially effective for those who dislike traditional “cardio.”
A high intensity interval session only requires about 20 minutes or less, two or three times a week, opposed to an hour or more on the treadmill, several times a week. Most people can carve out 20 minutes without losing sleep over it. As mentioned above, getting enough sleep is an important aspect of health, and lack of sleep can hamper weight loss efforts and contribute to a wide range of health problems.
In order to benefit your health, you need to be consistent in your sleeping habits.
As a general rule, adults need between six and eight hours of sleep every night. However, there are plenty of exceptions. Also, as the study on twins suggests, you may need upwards of nine hours a night in order for it to outweigh certain genetic predispositions, by allowing your body to reap maximum benefits from a healthy diet and exercise regimen. The amount of sleep you need may also drastically change depending on your circumstances, such as illness or going through an emotionally stressful time.
Pregnant women also typically need more sleep than usual during the first trimester. My advice is to pay close attention to your body, mind and emotional state. For example, if you consistently feel tired upon waking, you probably need to sleep longer. Frequent yawning throughout the day is another dead giveaway that you need more shut-eye.
Optimizing Your Sleep Sanctuary
There are many factors that can influence your sleep, but one that many fail to consider is the use of light-emitting technology, such as your TV, iPad, and computer, before going to bed. These emit the type of light that will suppress melatonin production, which in turn will hamper your ability to fall asleep. Ideally, you'll want to turn all such light-emitting gadgets off at least an hour prior to bedtime. Next, making some adjustments to your sleeping area can also go a long way to ensure uninterrupted, restful sleep:
Cover your windows with blackout shades or drapes to ensure complete darkness. Even the tiniest bit of light in the room can disrupt your pineal gland's production of melatonin and serotonin, thereby disrupting your sleep cycle.
So close your bedroom door, get rid of night-lights, and refrain from turning on any light during the night, even when getting up to go to the bathroom. If you have to use a light, install so-called "low blue" light bulbs in your bedroom and bathroom. These emit an amber light that will not suppress melatonin production.
Keep the temperature in your bedroom at or below 70 degrees F (21 degrees Celsius). Many people keep their homes and particularly their upstairs bedrooms too warm. Studies show that the optimal room temperature for sleep is quite cool, between 60 to 68 degrees F (15.5 to 20 C). Keeping your room cooler or hotter can lead to restless sleep.
Move alarm clocks and other electrical devices away from your head. If these devices must be used, keep them as far away from your bed as possible, preferably at least three feet. 
One of my favorite phrases in regard to youth fitness/athletic development specifically and overall health and wellness for all ages generally; “pick the lowest hanging fruit first.” What this simply means is that rather than stressing out about whether your child has the best strength, speed, or sport skill training address the things that can make a difference right now. The fastest way to optimize performance and separate you from the competition on the field of play and in the game of life is mastering the basics first. Nutrition is the fastest way to do this because every time you eat something it affects your performance; positively or negatively and it’s done at minimum three times a day. But getting proper rest is a close second and given the recent research findings the gap is closing in my mind. The pillars of athletic development should be nutrition and sleep habits. These are two factors that are absolutely within your control. If you have had trouble getting bigger and stronger it’s not because of your lifting program. Without proper nutrition and recovery time the task of adding strength, muscle mass and explosive power is greatly diminished!
“People just don’t realize how important sleep is, and what the health consequences are of not getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis… Sleep is just as important for overall health as diet and exercise.”
–Carl Hunt, MD, director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research at the National Institutes of Health
I touched on it briefly above but working out in the morning is a great strategy because not only do you get it out the way early but it also sets you up for having an extremely productive day. There are a few things to consider however when training in the morning and I will address them next week.
Youth Fitness/Nutrition Specialist