Bad to the Bones–A Cautionary Tale

Last week, after a restless night with no known cause, I saw a tweet  that sent shivers down my spine. It wasn’t from the president. It was From Science News: lack of sleep, particularly in youth, is associated with bone loss in older men. Now, I’m not a man but my happy memories of a misspent youth, cramming for Organic Chemistry and partying until dawn haunt me. I’m not a fan of sleeping.

In graduate school, I secretly agreed with that 80s meme I’ll sleep when I’m dead. And those slim 90s speed freaks and coke heads–I kind of admired them as they raced ahead in the corporate world. I had something different keeping me awake–my kids, dogs, and academic job. (Why do people call babies innocent? They are bone destroyers.)

There was a long stretch of time when the Christian school next to me allowed delivery trucks to make noise any hour of the night and since I had a new baby, I woke up at the slightest bang of a truck door reverberating on the flat landscape-less brick of their ugly building. Religion hates your bones. Or at least, hated my bones. And since most of the time these trucks came from the AE Dairy, I rarely buy their products even though the baby is now 26. You never forget what keeps you awake.

Older and recent studies link bone problems with lack of sleep. Studies with rats come to the same conclusion– lack of sleep affects bone marrow and bone density and bone flexibility.

Shift work and jet lag have been cited as causes for prolonged sleep disruption. Electrolyte imbalance from too few fruits and vegetables in the diet may be a cause in older people. There’s also acid reflux–watch your diet. That’s one take away from this disheartening news. You are what you eat,

Alcohol can help you fall asleep, but it affects the sleep cycle and reduces reparative sleep.  Your bones don’t want you to drink.

Lack of melatonin due to age or electronic devices used at night is a bone breaker. In fact, reading/watching exiting or disturbing things flushes the body with adrenaline, not melatonin. Your bones hate your devices. They want you to get out into the sun.

Caffeine after 2 pm has an adverse effect on sleep even if those who consume it don’t think it does. For some people, it has an adverse effect if taken eleven hours before bedtime. And keep yourself to below 400 mg per day. (see this chart)

Sugar and refined carbs also negatively affect sleep quality.

Smoking? More bad news here. Nicotine is a stimulant that disrupts circadian rhythms and smoking can cause sleep apnea.

Getting exercise, or perhaps vibration, as long as it’s not too close to bed, improves sleep. Perhaps you can pop a melatonin pill to over-ride all the stimulants in your life but since it’s a hormone, there could be future side effects==especially in children. The doses in over the counter melatonin pills are too high for many people and can cause daytime drowsiness. Even worse, you could become immune to it and face more troubles down the road. However, it might be the key to better bones for those over 60. I look back on my life and wonder if I’ve ever slept soundly at all.

What to do?

I already exercise and do what I can to avoid sugar. I don’t smoke and rarely drink alcohol near bedtime. But based on my history and being a white woman under 127 pounds, my bones probably need emergency help. I decided to cut way back on my caffeine and see if I slept better. I went down to a half cup before 7am. How did it go? Things were not fun. I was late for a meeting–forgot about it–and said “Hertz” when I meant “Joules” and I tossed and turned  the first few nights as my body urged me to wake up for a cup of coffee. Then I slept better. A few days ago  I took a 7 pm trip to the grocery store (12 hours after the meager ration of coffee). I sang all the way there. The green bursting buds on the trees radiated life. But alas, at the checkout discovered that I had forgotten my billfold! The next morning, I noticed that I had left my laundry on the line overnight.

The verdict is still out on this bone saving effort. I’ve maybe gone too far. But last night I had the best sleep.  My first thought at greeting the beautiful day was how nice a big cup of coffee would be.

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