Sleep. Why is it so Important?

By July 12, 2018Blog

Although it is often overlooked, a good night’s sleep is incredibly important for your overall health and wellbeing, just as important as healthy eating and regular exercise.  Sleep is a restorative process for your mind and body and adequate levels are essential for the basic function of many bodily systems.

We all know that grumpy, lethargic feeling the next day after laying in bed all night tossing and turning, but short-changing your sleep on a regular basis can have long-lasting consequences that extend beyond physical tiredness.  It drains your mental abilities and puts your physical health at real risk.  Poor sleep has been linked to many health issues from weight gain to mental health disorders and cardiovascular disease.

Studies have shown that the average adult needs seven to nine hours of sleep per night, yet in our busy society, many of us underestimate the body’s need for sleep and are not getting the amount our body needs to perform the wide variety of processes it relies on sleep for.  During the night, our bodies cycle through two recurring phases of sleep: REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep.  Both of these are important for different functions in our bodies, so quality uninterrupted sleep is just as important as the quantity of sleep.  Some of the detrimental effects of poor sleep quality are outlined below.

Sleep and Weight Gain

Along with eating too much and not exercising, short sleep duration has been shown to be one of the strongest risk factors for obesity.  The effect of sleep on weight gain is mediated by numerous factors, including hormone, appetite and motivation levels.  Sleep, or lack of, affects the levels of leptin and ghrelin, hormones which act upon the hypothalamus in the brain to regulate appetite.  Without adequate sleep, production of leptin, an appetite suppressant, is diminished and production of ghrelin, an appetite stimulant, is increased, leading to an increase in appetite.

Not only does a lack of sleep stimulate appetite, it can also decrease motivation and stimulate cravings for energy-dense foods.  Poor sleep leads to low energy levels, prompting your body to begin looking for glucose for energy to help you through the day.  The most readily available sources of energy are generally highly processed foods meaning you will crave more of these when tired.

In addition to searching for energy, cortisol (stress hormone) levels are often elevated when functioning on little sleep.  Excess cortisol directly contributes to excess belly fat and can also increase appetite.  As a result, your body boosts insulin to help bring down cortisol and control your blood sugar levels.  Higher insulin levels, in turn, promote fat storage and increase your risk of type 2 diabetes

Sleep and Immune Function

Sleep deprivation leads to increased levels of inflammatory proteins in the blood. Inflammation, often referred to as the silent killer, is linked to many other conditions including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, arthritis, and premature aging.  Inflammation also reduces your sensitivity to insulin and drives up cortisol production.

While sleep deprivation leads to inflammation, during sleep your immune system produces protective, infection-fighting substances like cytokines.  Some cytokines are used to help promote sleep and others are needed to help fight off infections and inflammation in the body.  Sleep deprivation reduces the ability of the body to protect itself from bacteria and viruses making you more prone to common illnesses and influences how the body fights these illnesses, increasing recovery times.

Sleep and Mental Health

Sleep plays an important role in the facilitation of brain growth and development and also supports learning and memory.  During sleep, new neurons and neuron pathways are formed daily in the adult brain and damaged cells and toxins are removed.  Disturbances to these processes cause stressful conditions and disrupt normal brain physiology.  These disruptions can negatively affect your mental ability and emotional state.  You may be more prone to mood swings and impulsive behaviour and feel more impatient.  It can make it difficult to concentrate or learn new things and affect your decision-making processes and coordination skills.  Prolonged sleep deprivation can have more serious consequences and lead to things like depression, anxiety, paranoia, suicidal thoughts, and hallucinations.

So knowing how important sleep is to both your physical and mental wellbeing, here are some tips to help you achieve better quality sleep and get more of it. 

Create a comfortable sleeping environment

Make sure your bedroom is cool, quiet, dark and free from distracting noises and light.  If your bed or pillows are uncomfortable, change them.  Turn your smartphone off, or at least on silent and face down, so you are less likely to be distracted by notifications going off through the night.

Keep a Routine

Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day including on the weekends if possible.  Just like your workout or diet, trying to keep to a routine is an excellent way to set yourself up for success.  Understand your sleep requirements.  Most people need at least seven hours of sleep for optimal recovery so try to commit to a certain amount of sleep each night.

Bed is for sleep

And maybe a bit of intimacy!  Avoid watching television, studying, working, eating or drinking in bed.  Your brain should associate your bed with sleeping.  Keeping all other activities out of the bedroom will help your brain switch to sleep mode when you do get into bed at night.  Also, there’s nothing worse than having food crumbs all through your bed when you are trying to get to sleep.

Disconnect

Try to disconnect from any gadgets (phones, computers, TVs) an hour before bed.  The blue light that is emitted from screens prevents your body from signaling that it is time for bed.  Try reading an actual book rather than looking at facebook before laying down for the night.

No Caffeine in the P.M.

We all know caffeine is a stimulus that helps keep us awake, but it is sometimes hidden in things we are not aware of.  Coffee and tea are obvious sources of caffeine but it can also be found in many workout supplements, soft drinks, and even chocolate.  Try to limit intake of these things after lunchtime and limit your sugar intake also, as too much can have the same effect.

Limit your alcohol

Alcohol may help you relax and fall asleep faster, but it can mess with your sleep cycles.  Alcohol decreases deep sleep, increases arousal and may make you need to use the toilet more often, so sleep quality will be diminished.  If you do have a drink of an evening, try to have it earlier rather than later and drink in moderation, so it’ll wear off by the time you lie down.

Relax

Try not to engage in stimulating activity before bed.  Vigorous exercise, playing competitive games, watching exciting programs, or holding important discussions can all keep your brain wide awake and have it racing when it is time to switch off and go to sleep.

Stretch or meditate
Try to calm your mind as much as possible before getting ready for bed.  Some meditation, foam rolling or gentle stretching/yoga before you hit the sack can help relax your mind, steady your breath, and reduce muscle tension without raising heart rate or body temperature.

Keep cool
Many people have a hot bath to help them relax, but this can actually make it harder for you to fall asleep.  Anything that raises your body temperature too close to bedtime can hinder you from falling asleep because your body needs to cool to a certain temperature in order to reach a sound slumber.

Overall, quality sleep is one of the best habits you can adopt to improve both your physical and mental health.  So if you have been struggling to get a good nights sleep, use some of these tips to improve your sleep quality and reap the many rewards that come with it.

 

 

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