As we struggle to allot enough time to the job, kids, family, friends, Lost, and Joaquin Phoenix message boards, sleep stands out as a suspiciously long block of idle hours. We set the alarm early, stay up late, and order a tall whatever-we-want to help us get by on the minimum. But the fact is: When you lose sleep, you lose your health.

Experts say most of us need about 8 hours of sleep a night, but half of us don’t get it. And more than 80 percent of working women report exhaustion. According to the National Sleep Foundation’s annual survey, in 2005 U.S. adults got, on average, just 6.9 hours of sleep a night. Now researchers are discovering that a decline in sleep time means a decline in your health. Some examples:

Getting just an hour or two less sleep than needed per night can impair brain function.

Insufficient sleep is associated with cancer, heart disease, obesity, and dia-betes not to mention early death.

It’s also a risk factor for depression, infertility, miscarriage, and postpartum depression.

To top it off, sleeping less to do more doesn’t even work: People who skimp on sleep may be devoting more hours to getting things done, but they work more slowly and accomplish less. “There really isn’t a good substitute for sleep,” says Donna Arand, Ph.D., a psychologist and the clinical director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Kettering Medical Center in Dayton, Ohio.

Scientists haven’t yet grasped all the functions of sleep, but they know that sleep is needed every bit as intensely as food or water. It enables our bodies to regulate temperature and fight off infection. It may help our brains retain things we learned the previous day.

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