When it comes to good health, we’re reminded over and over again to eat right, exercise and don’t smoke. But an increasing amount of scientific evidence indicates that adequate sleep should be added to that list in order to help ensure optimal health.

There are myriad benefits of regular, uninterrupted sleep, says Dr. Shiraz Daud, a specialist in pulmonary critical care and sleep medicine with BJC Medical Group and at Missouri Baptist Medical Center. “Sleep has restorative functions for the body that span numerous organ systems, including the cardiovascular and immune systems,” he says. “During normal sleep, blood pressure typically falls, as this is the time for the heart and the rest of the cardiovascular system to ‘rest.’ If someone isn’t getting enough sleep, the heart is working harder and longer, with consequences such as hypertension and heart rhythm problems.”

People who are chronically sleep deprived often need more energy during the day to function, and they seek it out in the form of sugary foods that provide a quick blood sugar spike, contributing to weight gain and obesity, Daud adds. In addition, sleep deprivation dramatically increases the risk of accidents due to drowsy driving and decreases overall quality of life, curtailing one’s ability to engage in enjoyable, active pursuits.

Dr. Kevin Postol, a St. Louis dentist who works with patients and their physicians to treat sleep apnea with removable oral appliances, adds to the list of sleep-deprivation woes: “We can start with the fact that kids who don’t sleep well are more tired during the day, and thus we see more behavioral problems at home and school,” he says. “These same children are often diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and put on meds they don’t need. And in adults, there are multiple studies showing the significance of sleep apnea with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and diabetes.”

Postol notes that sleep apnea, a common sleep disorder in which interrupted breathing disrupts the normal sleep cycle, may be related to dental issues such as a high palate or narrow arch. In such cases, an oral appliance may help treat the apnea.

However, sleep disorders are not the cause of sleep deprivation for many people. “One of the most common reasons is simply insufficient sleep time,” Daud says. “With busy work and family schedules, sleep is often viewed as a luxury, and people ‘short-change’ their sleep time.” That strategy can end up short-changing their health, too.

Consider that young children typically require 10 to 14 hours of sleep per night, and older school-aged children still need 10 to 11 hours of sleep. Adults should aim for eight hours of sleep per night; although individual differences mean that some people can function on slightly less, while others need more in order to feel truly rested.

“There are simply too many potential health consequences from chronic sleep deprivation to allow social and family demands to affect the amount of sleep we get,” Daud says. As you strive to live a healthy lifestyle, don’t forget to rest your body and mind, and see your primary-care physician to discuss potential sleep disorders if you feel chronically fatigued.

More Health-wellness articles.