Catching up on your z’s, stealing some shut eye, sawing logs, grabbing 40 winks, or hitting the hay… no matter what you call it, sleep is absolutely critical to our continued good health. Without enough of it we simply, well, start to fall apart.

Although we still have more to learn about exactly what happens during the hours that we’re snoozing, we do know that our bodies use this “down time” to get a whole lot of work done. When we short-change ourselves on sleep, some of that work doesn’t get done, and the consequences of lack of sleep can be devastating, raising our risks for diseases ranging from cancer to diabetes.

Men, you ought to think twice before deciding to burn the candle at both ends. Lack of sleep could raise your risk of prostate cancer. And we’re not talking about a little rise in risk here, either. According to one study, published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers, & Prevention, if your insomnia has you battling to stay asleep, your prostate cancer risk could even double!

And if that doesn’t scare you enough to want to do something about your sleep problems, what if I told you that lack of sleep could send your sperm counts south and even lead to shrunken testicles!

(Yeah, I thought THAT might get your attention.)

Ladies, don’t think you’ve dodged a bullet here. Lack of sleep can have both men, and women packing on the pounds and fighting skyrocketing blood sugar.

In fact, getting less than six hours of quality sleep a night is linked to a higher Body Mass Index, according to a study in the American Journal of Human Biology. And a University of Illinois at Chicago study found that poor sleepers were twice as likely to have type-2 diabetes as those who regularly got a good night’s sleep.

Lack of sleep means lost neurons

Now a new study, published in the Journal of Neurosciences, has given us yet one more reason to commit to keeping our date with the Sandman every night. According to researchers, sleep loss can literally cause brain damage!

And to make matters worse, sneaking in extra naps—or sleeping in on the weekends—to catch up on your sleep will NOT help reverse the damage you’ve done to your brain.

University of Pennsylvania neuroscientists wanted to find out what effects a sporadic sleep schedule… like the one that shift workers are subjected to… would have on the brain. To find out, they put mice on a sleep schedule that had them sleeping for short periods of time during inconsistent hours. And the results were, frankly, nothing short of shocking.

The researchers found that the mice suffered MASSIVE brain damage, losing an astounding 25 percent of the neurons in the area of the brain that is responsible for alertness and cognitive function. Apparently the brain’s built-in defense system against sleep deprivation… having new neurons pump out extra sirtuin type-3 protein to energize and protect you… breaks down after a few days

Getting serious about shuteye

One thing’s very clear; it’s time to get super-serious about your shuteye. If you’re not already regularly getting a good night’s sleep (typically, eight hours of uninterrupted snoozing) you need to commit to changing that. If you don’t you very well may be facing a future filled with obesity, diabetes, cancer and brain damage!

But don’t fall into the trap of quick-fix anti-anxiety or sleep drugs. I’ve warned you before about the many pitfalls of these dangerous pills with their long list of potential side effects including a raised risk of dementia, falling, and death.  And studies show that the drugs are often ineffective, and may not lead to any significant increase in quality sleep anyway.

Instead, look for natural solutions to your shuteye problem, starting with cutting back on stimulants like caffeinated coffee, tea, and soda. Next turn your bedroom into a sanctuary. Remove the TV, get rid of any light sources like blinking electronics, and make sure the temperature is comfortable. And finally, ban brain-stimulating back-lit devices like smartphones and tablets for at least an hour before turning in.

If you’re particularly sensitive, some energizing supplements like B12 or ginseng may interfere with your sleep, too. Try taking them first thing in the morning, instead of in the afternoon or evening.

To ease anxiety symptoms, consider trying 500 mg of magnesium before bed. L-tryptophan if you’re under 40, melatonin if you’re over 40, and GABA no matter what your age, can all be effective, natural, short-term sleep solutions. All of them may be able to help you readjust your bad sleeping habits to get back into a regular routine.

And if you’re still having trouble getting sleep, I strongly recommend you make an appointment to see a doctor who is skilled in natural medicine. He’ll be able to pinpoint the real cause of your sleep troubles, and tailor a get-to-sleep plan specifically for you.