When you consider the steps you can take to improve your health, you probably don’t think about how well you are sleeping.
But getting the benefits of sleep are just as important as eating a healthy diet and engaging in regular exercise. That’s why getting a good night’s sleep is one of the primary therapeutic lifestyle changes I recommend for optimal health and well-being.
Sleep Benefits Basics
Research has shown that sleep has distinct stages that cycle throughout the night in predictable patterns. How well rested you are and how well you function depend not just on your total sleep time but on how much of the various stages of sleep you get each night.
Several things happen while you sleep.
Your heart rate slows down, your blood pressure and body temperature fall and your immune system shifts into high gear. During the deepest stage of sleep, called rapid eye movement (REM), your brain unwinds and your muscles completely relax. In a nutshell, sleep benefits your entire body, as it regenerates and rejuvenates itself. Researchers have uncovered a number of ways that sleep deprivation can affect your health. Many physiological tasks vital to health and quality of life are linked to sleep benefits, and these tasks are impaired when you are sleep deprived.
How Sleep Deprivation Affects Your Health
As I mentioned earlier, sleep benefits include your heart rate and blood pressure dropping as you sleep. If you don’t get enough sleep, this nightly dip in blood pressure, which appears to be important for good cardiovascular health, may not occur.
Research also suggests that inadequate sleep may lead to increased production of proteins thought to play a role in heart disease. Furthermore, the well-known Nurses’ Health Study found a link between inadequate sleep and heart disease. Those who reported sleeping five or fewer hours per night were at greatest risk of experiencing a coronary event, such as a heart attack.
Sleep deprivation can also have a negative effect on your mental function. The effects of an occasional late night or early awakening probably won’t be noticeable—your brain is quite resilient. Get enough sleep the next night, and you’ll feel like yourself again.
But the effects of sleep deprivation are cumulative. If you’re consistently getting an hour less sleep than you require, by the end of the week you will have lost the equivalent of one night of sleep. This is when sleep deprivation begins to take its toll.
Studies have consistently found that as the sleep “debt” increases, mental processes slow down, reaction time lengthens and it becomes more difficult to focus attention. Sleep deprivation can actually affect reaction time and judgment to a degree similar to drinking alcohol. Memory—especially short-term memory—is impaired, and mental tasks that require remembering several pieces of information at a time become increasingly difficult.
There is also an obvious link between your mood and lack of sleep. Only one night of inadequate sleep can adversely affect your functioning and mood during the next day and possibly longer. Most people report being irritable, if not downright unhappy, when they don’t get enough sleep. Research has also shown that people who chronically suffer from a lack of sleep are at greater risk of developing mood disorders.
Several studies have confirmed that lack of sleep is detrimental to immune system function. During sleep, your body creates more cytokines—chemical messengers that help the immune system fight various infections. Research has shown that sleep deprivation also increases the body’s production of inflammatory cytokines. This elevates inflammation in the body, increasing the risk of developing inflammation-related health conditions, which include Alzheimer’s, heart disease and cancer, to name a few.
How Much Sleep Do You Need?
Studies suggest that the optimal amount of sleep needed to perform daily activities adequately and not have problems with sleepiness during the day is about 7–8 hours for adults. Similar amounts seem to be necessary to avoid further increasing the risk of certain health issues and enjoy all of the benefits of sleep.
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