Sleep is way more important than you think!
What if there was one single thing you can do that will help you:
- Be more resilient to stress
- Lift your moods and mental health
- Lose weight
- Boost concentration and memory
- Improve performance and productivity
- Heal more quickly
Would you prioritize it?
What is this one single thing that deeply impacts your brain and body, both in the short- and long-term?
It’s simple: sleep.
Would you be shocked to know some researchers say that “good sleep guarantees wellbeing and mental health”?(1)
Why is sleep so very important? What is sleep and how do we do it? How much is “enough quality sleep”? How does it do these amazing things for health and wellness? And, most importantly, how can you get better sleep?
For answers to all these questions read on.
Why is sleep important?
Sleep is intimately linked to your health and wellness. Getting enough quality sleep boosts your health in so many ways, which we’ll talk about. And, it’s a two-way street. The quality and amount of sleep you get is affected by your health, as you might have noticed how hard it can be to get a good night’s rest when you’re in pain or struggling with a cold.
FUN FACT: There’s a growing body of evidence that sleep is integral to health. In fact, science shows that getting enough quality sleep may prevent and improve several diseases.
Not getting enough quality sleep (more on this below) can be a huge factor when it comes to deteriorating physical and mental health, economic issues, and even death.(1) It increases your risk of developing and worsening several serious conditions, including:
- Moods and mental health issues
- Metabolic issues like diabetes
- Heart disease
- Autoimmune conditions
Yes, sleep truly is a panacea for everything.
In fact, sleep researchers encourage clinicians to educate patients about sleep hygiene and good sleep habits because of its proven benefits for diseases.(2) Next week I’ll share my 18 tips to help you with this!
Let’s talk about some of these health effects.
What is sleep and how do we do it?
From the outside, sleep looks like a pretty passive activity. But, even though you’re not conscious and are not fully aware of many things going on around you (e.g., noises), both your brain and body are active while you sleep.(2)
Sleep is regulated by two processes that create your personal biorhythm. The first one—your sleep-wake process—regulates how you sleep, and the second—your circadian process (or rhythm)—regulates when you sleep.
There are four stages of sleep:
- Stage 1 - The stage between wakefulness and sleep
- Stage 2 - Light sleep before you enter deep sleep. This makes up about 50% of the total sleep time.
- Stage 3 - Deep sleep, also known as slow-wave sleep (SWS). It helps you feel refreshed in the morning and makes up about 20% of total sleep time.
- Stage 4 - Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is when your brain activity is almost as high as when you’re awake—most dreams occur here. REM sleep makes up about 20% of total sleep time.(2,3)
Each cycle through these four stages takes about 90 minutes. That means, during an average night of eight hours of sleep, you would go through this cycle about five times. As the night goes on, the SWS stage shortens while the REM stage lengthens.(2) This means that the longer you’re asleep the more of your sleep is in the REM stage—and REM sleep is great for your body and brain. Studies show that when learning a new physical task, people’s performance can improve overnight—but only as long as they get enough REM sleep.(4)
FUN FACT: The longer you go without sleep, the more your body tries to get you to sleep longer and more deeply.(2,3)
What is “enough quality sleep”?
So far we’ve seen some of the benefits of getting enough quality sleep. But, how much sleep is “enough”?
The official recommendations for adults are to get 7-9 hours of sleep every night.(5) And younger people need even more. Here’s what everyone should aim for every 24 hours:
- Newborns (0-3 months) need 14-17 hours
- Infants (4-12 months) need 12-16 hours, including naps
- Toddlers (1-2 years old) need 11-14 hours, including naps
- Preschoolers (3-5 years old) need 10-13 hours, including naps
- School-aged children (6-12 years old) need 9-12 hours
- Teens (13-18 years old) need 8-10 hours
- Adults (18+) need 7-9 hours
Note that too much sleep is linked to other health problems, too! Believe it or not, it can increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, and even death.(1,6) It can also worsen mental health issues, including mood disorders.(7)
What exactly is quality sleep? It’s when you:
- Fall asleep fairly quickly
- Sleep for a long enough duration
- Don’t wake up during sleep
- If you wake up, then falling back asleep quickly
Sleep disorders affect your quality of life and wellbeing
Wellbeing is when you feel happy, healthy, and productive. When you enjoy a high quality of life, feel optimistic, and are emotionally stable, you’re “well.” It may not surprise you that sleep disturbances may affect and be affected by your level of wellbeing.(1)
FUN FACT: How long you sleep is very important. What’s even more important for your health and wellness? It’s having a regular sleep schedule.(1)
We all have trouble sleeping sometimes. If you’re highly sensitive like me, it can be a real challenge to fall asleep because we tend to be deep thinkers, ruminating on things for hours. It’s even possible to have a sleep disorder and not even know it! The three most common sleep disorders are obstructive sleep apnea, insomnia, and restless leg syndrome. Experiencing these disorders can have a significant effect on your quality of life such as your:(1)
- Vitality, energy, and motivation
- Emotional regulation and relationships
- Ability to think clearly, learn, remember things, and make decisions (cognitive functioning)
- Physical functioning
- Work performance
There are effective treatments for sleep disorders that can lead to significant improvements.(1) See your healthcare professional if you have any health concerns, including sleep disorders.
Sleep, pain, and mental health
When you feel stressed and irritable, do you ever relate that back to not getting enough quality sleep the previous night (or nights)? There’s a relationship between lack of sleep and feeling more sensitive to everyday stressors – hello, my highly sensitive friends, listen up! Plus, lack of sleep increases inflammation and sensitivity to certain types of physical pain. It also decreases how you feel about the quality of your life. These can all lead to emotional distress, mood disorders, memory deficits, and the ability to think clearly, learn, and make decisions (cognitive function).(1)
FUN FACT: According to one study, sleep problems, along with stress and life dissatisfaction, can predict back pain in 40-year-olds.(1)
Even if you don’t have physical pain, if you think sleep affects your moods, you’re right. Studies show that there are more mental health issues (e.g. anxiety, depression) in people who don’t get enough quality sleep (remember, adults need 7-9 hours per night). As lack of sleep worsens, so do mental health symptoms.(7) Increased feelings of worry and anxiety are some of the biggest consequences of sleep deprivation.(8) If you’re Highly Sensitive, you probably experience this regularly because we think about things more deeply and often for longer than the neurotypical person. And if what we’re processing is about ourselves, then our high conscientiousness can manifest as self-judgement and “coulda-shoulda-woulda” thinking too.
Sleep disorders like sleep apnea are linked to mood disorders, lower levels of wellbeing, and lower concentration and memory.(1)
On the other hand, sleeping excessively long (hypersomnolence) is common in people with mental health issues, particularly mood disorders.(1,7)
This is why getting enough quality sleep is such an important factor for mental health.
Sleep, brain (cognitive) function, and aging
Want to think clearly, concentrate, learn, make decisions, and remember things?(1,3) Sleep affects these brain functions no matter how old you are.(3) Plus, recent research shows that sleep helps to flush out compounds in your brain that build up while you’re awake.(3,9) This works because of your brain’s “glymphatic” system. This system drains waste products from the brain (including the beta-amyloid protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease) and is more active during sleep.(9)
Sleep also plays a crucial role in brain aging. Many neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s have sleep symptoms in common. In fact, struggling with an irregular sleep cycle (circadian rhythm) may be an early symptom of these diseases, and may be a key factor in making them worse. And, vice versa: Cognitive impairment may be a sign of an undiagnosed sleep disorder.(1)
It’s important to get enough sleep, no matter your age. While it may be harder to get enough sleep as you get older, all adults—even older adults—need 7-9 hours each night. According to Harvard Health, “We don't outgrow our need for sleep; it's just harder to come by.”(4)
Sleep issues are more common in older adults for many reasons. These include having other health conditions, taking several medications, and even social factors like family, housing, and finances.(1) Having an inconsistent daily schedule can also factor in.(10) These can all have a negative effect on sleep.
Sleep, immunity, and inflammation
Sleep helps you stave off infection and too much inflammation. And, if you’re well-rested and get an infection, your immune system can fight it better.
Sleep, immunity, and inflammation are delicately intertwined. Getting enough quality sleep promotes a healthy immune system and a balanced level of inflammation. It can help you overcome infections when you get them.(2)
Lack of quality sleep can trigger long-term low-grade inflammation—the same kind of inflammation linked with diabetes, heart disease, and neurodegeneration.(2,6)
Sleep, stress, weight, heart disease, and diabetes
Not getting enough quality sleep increases your risk for(6):
- Weight gain, excess weight, and obesity
- High blood sugar
- Impaired glucose tolerance
- Type II diabetes
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
Layer stress on top of this and it makes things worse. Stress can lead to serious sleep disorders like insomnia. Insomnia can then make you even more sensitive to stress.(1)
Also, there is a link between lifestyle factors such as smoking, lack of physical exercise, and alcohol use and people who sleep less.(6)
FUN FACT: Sleep and stress are very intertwined. How much cortisol (a stress hormone) you release is related to the quality of your sleep. Better sleep equals lower stress.(1)
Interrupted sleep affects your blood sugar by reducing insulin sensitivity and impairing glucose tolerance. People who sleep just 4 hours per night tend to crave sweet and/or salty foods more than those who sleep 7-9 hours per night.
Sleep restriction is not surprisingly linked with increased caloric intake and weight gain. Not getting enough sleep also reduces the amount and intensity of people’s physical activity.(6)
Getting adequate sleep has the opposite effect. It improves insulin sensitivity, reduces appetite, food cravings, and the amount of sugar consumed.(6) These all help to reduce your risks for heart disease, diabetes, and weight gain.
Sleeping patterns: hypnotype, chronotype, and shift work
Your personal sleeping pattern is made up of your hypnotype and chronotype. Hypnotype describes whether you are a “long-sleeper” or “short-sleeper.” As we’ve seen, too little or too much sleep can have negative health impacts.(1)
Chronotype is whether you’re a “morning person” or an “evening person.” When you go against your chronotype, you get worse sleep. It’s not too surprising that, when “early birds” take on night shifts or when “night owls” get early shifts, they get worse sleep.(1)
Here’s where things get even more interesting.
Even if you get the recommended amount of sleep (7-9 hours for adults), if your job makes you go against your morning/evening preference, that can have negative health effects.(1) About one in five people in industrialized countries work shifts. It’s not surprising that there is a link between shift work, insufficient sleep, chronic disease, and accidents.
A recent study of over 270,000 workers found that shift work (day and/or night) is associated with sleep disorders, reduced wellbeing, obesity, and depression. “Shift work disorder” is when you have excessive sleepiness, insomnia, or both as a result of shift work.(1)
Working shifts affects the quality of your sleep, too. And the effect can continue long after you no longer work shifts. This is especially true if you previously worked shifts for many years.(1)
That’s right – going against your chronotype can give you both worse sleep and worse health! We’re talking about health effects like increased risk for tobacco use, sedentary behaviour, inappropriate diets, and even musculoskeletal disorders.(1)
Now you know why getting enough quality sleep can help improve your wellbeing and many, many health conditions. The health benefits are enormous. Sleep can lower your risks for heart disease, stroke, weight gain, diabetes, and a strong immune system. Your mind also benefits with lower risks for mood disorders, and dementia.
And remember, if you have a sleep disorder or any health conditions, speak with your healthcare professional for a proper diagnosis and treatment strategy.
Here's to your restful sleep,
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1. Magnavita, N., & Garbarino, S. (2017). Sleep, Health and Wellness at Work: A Scoping Review. International journal of environmental research and public health, 14(11), 1347. doi:10.3390/ijerph14111347. LINK: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29113118 LINK: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5707986/
2. Besedovsky, L., Lange, T., & Haack, M. (2019). The Sleep-Immune Crosstalk in Health and Disease. Physiological Reviews, 99(3), 1325-1380. doi: 10.1152/physrev.00010.2018. LINK: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30920354 LINK: https://www.physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/physrev.00010.2018?rfr_dat=cr_pub%3Dwww.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov&url_ver=Z39.88-2003&rfr_id=ori%3Arid%3Acrossref.org
3. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (2019, August 13). Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep. Retrieved from https://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Understanding-Sleep
4. Harvard Health. (2018, May 9). Repaying your sleep debt. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/womens-health/repaying-your-sleep-debt
5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017, March 2). Sleep and sleep disorders. How Much Sleep Do I Need? https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/how_much_sleep.html
6. Henst, R. H. P., Pienaar, P. R, Roden, L. C., & Rae, D. E. (2019). The effects of sleep extension on cardiometabolic risk factors: A systematic review. Journal of sleep research. LINK: https://doi.org/10.1111/jsr.12865 LINK: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/jsr.12865
7. Plante D. T. (2017). Sleep propensity in psychiatric hypersomnolence: A systematic review and meta-analysis of multiple sleep latency test findings. Sleep medicine reviews, 31, 48–57. doi:10.1016/j.smrv.2016.01.004. LINK: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4945489/
8. Pires, G. N., Bezerra, A. G., Tufik, S., & Andersen, M. L. (2016). Effects of acute sleep deprivation on state anxiety levels: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Sleep Med, 24, 109-118. doi: 10.1016/j.sleep.2016.07.019. LINK: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27810176
9. NIH Research Matters. (2013, October 28). How Sleep Clears the Brain. Retrieved from https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/how-sleep-clears-brain
10. Harvard Health. (2015, August). Restructure your day to get a better night's sleep. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/sleep/restructure-your-day-to-get-a-better-nights-sleep