The close relationship between sleep and overall health is well-researched. A good night’s sleep allows both the body and brain to recover and ensures we feel alert and refreshed the following day.
One-in-three people suffer from poor sleep for a range of reasons, but did you ever stop to consider how it might be hampering you physically and mentally? Lack of sleep has a knock-on effect when it comes to both physical health and cognitive ability.
Here’s why sleep is important for your health, and how, if you struggle hitting the pillow at night, you can try some tips and practices to get more of it!
Why Sleep Is So Important For Us, Both Mentally And Physically
Sleep plays a vital role in our mental and physical wellness. There are a number of processes that occur whilst we sleep that help to promote healthy brain activity and good overall health. For children and adolescents, sleep is also essential for proper growth and development.
A good night’s sleep can benefit us in a number of ways, including:
Boosted immunity: A prolonged lack of sleep can disrupt our immune systems, meaning we’re less able to fight off bugs
Boosted mental wellbeing: It’s not surprising really considering just one sleepless night can have us feeling tired, irritable and moody, that chronic sleep deprivation can cause disorders such as depression and anxiety. A number of studies have shown that those who regularly get seven hours or more sleep per night were less likely to suffer from these conditions.
Increasing sex drive: Those who don’t get enough quality sleep can have lower libidos and become less interested in sex, so research suggests.
Increasing fertility: Regular disruptions in sleep can make it more difficult to conceive in both men and women as the secretion of reproductive hormones, such as estrogen and progesterone, can be reduced. Sleep helps to keep these hormones at sufficient levels.
What Happens If We Don’t Sleep?
We’ve all experienced sleepless nights which make us feel tired, lacking in focus and irritable the following day. An occasional night without sleep won’t harm our health, but after several sleepless nights the mental implications start to show and become more serious. Our brains will fog and concentration becomes difficult which, in turn, affects our ability to make decisions. We will start to experience low mood and may nod off during the day, and our risk of injury and serious accidents at home, work, or on the road also increases.
If this continues then our overall health becomes affected and makes us prone to serious medical conditions such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.
The effects of sleep deprivation include:
Heart disease: There is a link between long-term sleep deprivation and an increased heart rate, blood pressure and higher levels of certain chemicals that link to inflammation, which all put extra pressure on your heart.
Diabetes: Other studies have shown that those who get five hours of sleep or less per night have an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes as your body has a harder time of processing glucose which it uses for energy.
Obesity: Some studies have shown that people who get less than seven hours of sleep per night tend to gain weight more easily and have a higher risk of becoming obese. This is down to a reduction in the levels of the chemical leptin which your body produces to make you feel ‘full’, and increased levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin which can lead to overeating.
Immunohealth: As we sleep, the level of certain T-cells, cytokines, and other important components of our immune systems, peak. Sleep deprivation can affect how our immune system responds to viruses and other infections, and a long-term reduction in sleep can lead to persistent low-level inflammation throughout the body which can lead to many health complications including high blood pressure and heart disease.
Cognitive performance: Lack of sleep affects our ability to concentrate, be creative, and learn new skills. People who don’t get enough sleep can often find it hard to pay attention and are more likely to make errors at work or school.
Processing memories: Sleep is important for our ability to process memories. As we sleep, our brains begin organising and consolidating memories during the ‘slow-wave’ sleep stage. The rapid eye movement that follows may help to cement these memories. As a consequence, a lack of sleep can affect our ability to remember important details.
Mood: People who regularly can’t sleep may have a harder time controlling their emotions, making sound decisions and coping with aspects of daily life. Sleep deficiency can also cause mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, and increase the risk of suicide in some people.
Growth and development: For children and adolescents, the deep stages of sleep trigger the release of growth hormones, as well as hormones that help increase muscle mass, regulate puberty and fertility, and repair tissues and cells. Children who don’t get enough sleep may also feel higher levels of sadness and anger, struggle with school work and have a hard time engaging positively with their peers.
Safety: Driving whilst tired, also known as ‘drowsy driving’ is a major hazard. Lack of sleep can reduce reaction time and lead to falling asleep at the wheel. People who don’t get enough sleep are also more at risk of having an accident at work.
How To Catch Up On Lost Sleep Through Good ‘Sleep Hygiene’
If you aren’t getting enough sleep then there’s only one way to compensate – getting more of it!
Sleep hygiene can be a good way of tackling this. It’s an umbrella term for behaviours and practices that help to improve sleep quality and duration and can include bedtime and wake-up routines, as well as changes to diet, increased physical activity and improving other aspects of your daily life.
Some key elements of good sleep hygiene include:
Prioritising sleep: Getting sufficient sleep can be tough to balance with work commitments, family life and socialising. You may have to sometimes forgo these activities to compensate however and get enough rest. If you’re usually good at juggling priorities, make this one of them.
Consistent sleep schedule: Really make an effort to go to bed and get up at the same time each day – this includes on the weekends and when you’re travelling. Lots of people find this a good way to ensure they get to bed on time.
Create a relaxing bedroom environment: Your bedroom should be a sleep sanctuary, so try to think of it in this way. Create a sleep-friendly space and fill it with things that relax and soothe you. Add light-blocking curtains, use a white noise machine, soothing sounds or ear plugs to block out loud noise and set your thermostat to between 15.6 – 19.4 degrees Celsius (60 – 67 degrees Fahrenheit) which experts agree is the ideal room temperature to promote sleep.
Nap responsibly: Too much napping during the day can really interfere with the amount of sleep you get at night. If you must take a nap, try limiting them to the morning and early afternoon and avoid napping for longer than 20 minutes as this can cause grogginess and make you feel unfocused when you wake up.
Incorporate healthy habits: A healthy diet and moderate daily exercise can help to improve your quality of sleep. Avoid smoking and try to avoid drinking alcohol or caffeine late at night. Eating late, especially big meals, can also affect your sleep, so try eating your last meal of the day at a reasonable time, several hours before you go to bed.
The Final Word
Sleep is essential for both our physical and mental health, not only when we’re young and still growing and developing, but throughout our entire adult lives too. No one should have to suffer from poor sleep and there are a number of ways you can help yourself. However, if you’re having problems sleeping and you don’t feel that anything is helping, then try arranging an appointment with your doctor who can advise on sleep health and hygiene, and test for sleep disorders if they feel it necessary.
What’s the quality of your sleep like? Are you one of those people who instantly fall asleep when your head hits the pillow, or do you struggle getting enough and find even counting sheep doesn’t work? Comment underneath and let me know.