When they talk about physical fitness and mental well-being, most people tend to focus on two things: exercise and proper nutrition. Even though they are a crucial part of the equation, the importance of a good night’s sleep is often overlooked.
To make matters worse, many of us lose an hour or two of sleep each night in an attempt to squeeze a few more tasks into our busy schedules, especially as we start 2020. That, of course, is the wrong thing to do, as cutting down on sleep can have a very negative effect on our health.
An extensive body of research shows that getting your zzz’s on a regular basis comes with many benefits. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the many ways that proper amount of sleep can help protect both your physical and mental health.
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8 Reasons Why Sleep Is Important
Here are the eight main reasons why sleep is good for you and why it is critical for your overall health, all backed up with scientific evidence.
1. Sleep Strengthens Your Immune System
The immune system is your body’s shield against various health threats that can impair its function. Physical activity and healthy nutrition can only do so much to keep your immune system alert and active. To keep your physical health in check, you also need to adopt healthy sleeping habits.
A 1996 study found that losing as little as an hour of sleep each night over a certain period of time can suppress your immune system.
Further research also showed that people who sleep for less than seven hours a night are more prone to colds and other seasonal viruses.
What’s more, regular sleep helps the immune system produce the protective antibodies following a vaccination. In 2012, a team of researchers studied the response of healthy adults to hepatitis B vaccine. They found that the effectiveness of the vaccine depended on the amount of sleep people got in the weeks after they received it.
2. Sleep Reduces Your Risk of Inflammatory Diseases
Researchers have also established a link between sleep and the inflammatory processes in the body.
For example, one study found that a chronic lack of sleep may increase your risk of developing inflammatory bowel syndrome. This condition can take on many forms, but the most common is Crohn’s disease. Crohn’s disease has a high recurrence rate, as up to 60% of patients go on to experience its symptoms once again.
A 2009 study showed that Crohn’s disease was almost two times more likely to recur in sleep-deprived people.
Experts thus believe that examining a patient’s sleeping habits could be a good way to predict the outcome of the treatment.
3. It Boosts Your Brain Power
A good night’s sleep is also essential for your brain to function properly.
According to one study, even moderate sleep deprivation can impair your cognitive function. The authors found that the effects of lack of sleep on your brain are similar – and sometimes worse – than those of alcohol. What’s more, it only takes about 19 hours without sleep to start experiencing them.
In 2004, a team of Boston-based researchers observed the effects of sleep deprivation in a group of hospital interns. The results showed that the longer the interns stayed awake, the more likely they were to make mistakes. In fact, they made 36% more serious errors than the interns who got eight hours of sleep at night.
Many other studies show that regular sleep can help boost not only your cognition but also your ability to focus.
4. Sleep Helps You Maintain Your Weight
While you sleep, your body produces hormones that enable its proper function. One such hormone is leptin, an appetite-suppressing hormone that helps the body fight food cravings.
Leptin works in concert with the so-called “hunger hormone,” ghrelin. As its popular name suggests, ghrelin elevates your appetite and awakens your sense of hunger. Your body needs leptin to reduce its effects, but sleep deprivation creates an imbalance in the levels of these two hormones.
Leptin deficiency can thus lead to a sudden weight gain.
But there’s more to the link between sleep and weight control.
According to research, a chronic lack of sleep can decrease your motivation to work out.
Coupled with hormonal imbalances, this decreased motivation is the main reason why sleep deprivation is one of the major risk factors for obesity in people of all ages.
5. Sleep Improves Your Athletic Performance
If you start losing sleep at night, it’s not only your motivation to work out that’s at stake. Your physical performance may also suffer as a result of sleep deprivation.
A 2007 study published in the Sleep journal observed how cutting down on sleep time affected physical performance in women. According to the results, the women found it much more difficult to keep up the pace while exercising. They were walking more slowly, had trouble performing their usual tasks, and had lost much of their grip strength.
A team of researchers also studied the effects of extra sleep on the athletic performance of a group of basketball players. The results were overwhelmingly positive. Not only were the men able to run faster than normal but they were also much more precise and quicker to react to different stimuli.
6. Regular Sleep Helps Your Child Grow
If you ever thought your baby grew a bit overnight, you might be on to something. According to decades of research dating all the way back to 1968, our bodies create the majority of their growth hormone supplies while we’re asleep at night. And while human growth hormone rarely helps adults over the age of 21 become taller, it is essential to your child’s proper physical development.
Several studies have found that sleep deprivation can reduce the production of human growth hormone in our bodies. If you lose sleep for one or two nights, the effects will be minimal and your body will start replenishing the supplies as soon as you revert back to your regular sleeping schedule. But a chronic lack of sleep can have a serious negative effect, especially in young children.
And that’s not all. The connection between sleep and growth hormone works both ways. A 2011 study found that the children who had insufficient levels of growth hormone were also more likely to have trouble falling asleep at night. This research highlights a very complex relationship that simply reinforces the idea that sleep is essential to your wellbeing.
7. Sleep Can Relieve Stress
There are plenty of other hormones that are essential to your body’s health. One of them is serotonin, also known as the “feel good hormone”. You need this hormone to be able to cope with stress in a more efficient way, but your brain only produces it when you’re in deep sleep.
Sleep deprivation can thus lower the production of serotonin and render you unable to relieve stress no matter how hard you try. That’s because there’s another hormone at play – cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone”.
As it has both positive and negative effects on your health, cortisol is a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you need plenty of it in the morning to be able to get up and have enough energy to start the day. When the evening comes, too much of it can overwork your brain and increase your stress levels, thus leaving you unable to calm down and fall asleep.
Your body naturally decreases its levels of cortisol as the day draws to a close. But according to research, a chronic lack of sleep could cause a spike in your cortisol levels in the evening.
As you may already know, stress is the number one enemy of your health, which is why you need to take steps to reduce it. Getting a good night’s sleep could be a good start.
8. Sleep Brings Out Your Creative Side
Over the years, a lot has been said about the link between sleep and creativity.
Some of it was purely anecdotal. For example, both Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson came up with their best-known literary creations while they were asleep. Similarly, Paul McCartney claims to have written some of the Beatles’ most iconic tunes while transitioning from wakefulness to sleep.
But there’s also a whole body of research that shows how sleep stimulates certain connections in our brains that may help spark creativity. It all started in 1963 when one study found that people in sleep hypnosis were coming up with creative new jokes more easily than when they’re awake. Then a 1988 study showed that people who were sleep-deprived had trouble thinking outside-the-box.
A 2002 study found that people who had just woken up from the REM stage of sleep were better at solving problems than those who woke up from an NREM stage. REM is the final stage of the sleep cycle that occurs after about 70 minutes of sleep. It is during this stage that we experience some of our most lifelike dreams, which suggests that this is when our imagination runs high.
Further research has produced similar results. In 2009, one study found that sleep doesn’t only help the brain store memories more efficiently but also strengthens our relational thinking skills. Simply put, this means that people who get enough sleep are more likely to see the forest for the trees.
How Much Sleep Is Enough?
The general rule we always hear about is that adults need about eight hours of sleep to wake up refreshed and feel alert during the day. But getting eight full hours of sleep might be too much for some, seeing as the standard sleep cycle plays out over 90 minutes. The goal is to go through the cycle five times, which means that you should aim for about seven-and-a-half hours of sleep each night.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends getting at least seven hours of uninterrupted sleep at night.
For teenagers, the minimum is eight hours, whereas schoolchildren should get no less than nine hours of sleep. Anything shorter than that constitutes short sleep, which could result in either acute or chronic sleep deprivation.
For years, researchers believed that people over 60 require less sleep. But recent research largely disproved this notion. According to a 2014 study, the number of neurons in our brain diminishes as we get older, thus reducing our ability to sleep as long as recommended.
So it’s not that older people don’t need at least seven hours of sleep but rather that their brains can’t sleep for that long. Over time, their bodies adapt to the circumstances and learn to function despite the shorter sleep time.
Some people don’t need seven or eight hours of sleep to feel awake the next day, while some might need a bit more than that. It all depends on the variations in the circadian clock, which may be genetically determined. Your goal should be to find the exact amount of sleep your body needs to function properly and implement it into your regular nighttime routine.
The Final Word
As you can see, there are many reasons why getting a good night’s sleep is essential to your health. Sleeping for at least seven hours each night can ensure optimal physical and mental performance. What’s more, it protects you from some serious conditions that could jeopardise your health and cause a number of related problems.
If you have trouble falling asleep at night, there are certain techniques and bedtime rituals that can help you overcome this problem. For example, you can try practicing deep breathing before going to bed. You might also want to adjust the temperature in your bedroom and eliminate distractions like phones and illuminated computer screens for a few hours before going to bed.
Remember, nothing can replace the benefits of getting your zzz’s on a regular basis. So, whatever you do, don’t cut down on your sleeping hours to make room for other activities. Your favourite show will still be there when you get back from work the next day, and you’ll enjoy it a lot more when you’re well-rested.