No. 1 Health Priority? Sleep

Is it possible that one little change can help you lose weight, exercise more often, feel more energized, sharpen your brain, slash your risk for everything from cancer to diabetes and heart disease and maybe even save your life? You bet, if that small change is hopping into bed earlier tonight and every night.

Skimping on shut-eye is a serious problem for 40 million Americans who log less than six hours of sleep most nights. Before his untimely death in April at age 57, rock-and-roll superstar Prince reportedly stayed awake for 154 hours straight working on his compositions. We don't know yet whether sleep deprivation played a part in the music world's sad loss, but the revelation underscores the importance of getting the sleep you need instead of trying to push through your days with a growing deficit.

If you think you're getting by just fine with six or less hours of shut-eye nightly, consider these amazing benefits you're missing out on!

-A healthier heart and cleaner arteries. Poor sleep increases risk for heart attacks and other cardiovascular events by 30 to 40 percent, according to a recent Swedish study. In a new study of more than 2,000 people from Finland, people who skimped on sleep had lower levels of beneficial HDLs - the kind of cholesterol that whisks harmful fats away for disposal.

-Better blood sugar. Sleep problems boost your blood sugar, according to a recent study of 15,145 people from China's Xuzhou Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

-Easier control of chronic pain. Sleep loss is especially associated with pain in people over age 50. Getting plenty helps people with chronic pain reduce the need for pain meds.

-A smarter immune system. A recent German study says logging plenty of deep sleep helps your immune system create long-term memories so it can recognize and attack invading bacteria and viruses in the future.

-More creativity and better mental focus. When you're well-rested its easier to do things, from excelling at your job and playing the piano to following a complicated recipe, with laser-like focus, according to a recent Australian study. Snooze time is also prime time for your brain to make innovative connections between experiences and information.

4 Ways to Get Deep, Healthy Sleep

Do we have your attention? If you think this sleep thing sounds like a pretty good idea, here's how to take advantage:

1. Turn in earlier. Ben Franklin was right when he quipped "early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise," at least about health. In a new University of Delaware study, people who went to bed on the early side had better heart-health habits; they were less likely to smoke and more likely to exercise and eat plenty of fruit and veggies than were night owls.

2. Hang out with your best buddies more often. Can't get to sleep? Pencil more social activities into your datebook. In a new University of Missouri study, people who spent more time with friends in organized activities (like that scrapbooking class or ping-pong league you've thought about joining) had fewer sleep problems than those who spent more time alone.

3. Munch a good-sleep diet. Volunteers in one recent study fell asleep faster when their meals included plenty of protein and not much saturated fat (the kind found in fatty meat, palm and coconut oils, butter, cheese and other full-fat dairy products). They spent more time in restorative stages of sleep when they ate plenty of fruit, veggies and whole grains, too.

4. Get up if you can't fall asleep. Climb out of the sack, go into another room and read for a while, then go back to bed when you're sleepy. You'll retrain your brain to link your bed with nodding off fast. This strategy is part of cognitive behavior therapy for insomnia, an approach now often recommended first for people who have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep.

© 2016 Michael Roizen, M.D. and Mehmet Oz, M.D.
Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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