The Importance of Sleep in Disease Management and Prevention
The topic of human health is complicated, but if there’s one fact that health experts are likely to agree on, it’s the importance of sleep. Most adults need seven to nine hours (1) of sleep per night.
Unfortunately, sleep is often the first thing we sacrifice in order to stay on top of our responsibilities. Even if you’re not obsessed with productivity, it can still be a real struggle to stop scrolling and put down the smartphone once you’ve hit the sheets. As a result, more than a third of adults (2) in the United States report getting insufficient sleep.
The benefits of sleep are hard to overstate. It plays a significant role in disease management and prevention, affecting nearly every aspect of your health. And while you may be able to make up some of your sleep deficit with a daily nap, running a prolonged deficit can wreak havoc on your physical and mental well-being. On the other hand, getting enough quality sleep each night can help your mind and body reach their full potential in the following ways.
Manage Your Weight
If you’re trying to lose some pounds or maintain a healthy weight, getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep may help you reach your goals. That’s because a lack of sleep is associated with weight gain (3).
It’s no coincidence that you can’t seem to turn down extra snacks when you’re tired. A lack of sleep may mess with the hormones that regulate your hunger cues (4), causing you to feel hungrier when you’re awake.
But there’s reason to be optimistic. Regularly sleeping for long enough can help you break the cycle of weight gain. When you get more sleep, you’re less likely to crave the sugary foods (5) that can disrupt your sleep and cause you to awaken more frequently during the night. Better eating habits also help reduce the symptoms of acid reflux, a painful disorder that can cause sleepless nights. And better weight control boosts the sleep quality of sleep apnea sufferers by improving their symptoms.
Lower Your Chronic Disease Risk
One of sleep’s most striking effects is disease prevention. Getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis can reduce your risk of several common disorders and chronic diseases.
Cardiovascular disease represents a wide range of illnesses and disorders affecting the heart, such as:
- Coronary heart disease
- Cardiac arrest
- High blood pressure
- Congestive heart failure
Together, these conditions are the leading cause of death (6) in the United States and cause about a quarter of all deaths every year.
A growing number of research studies show that lack of sleep negatively impacts on heart health (7). Sleep duration is a strong predictor of your risk (8) for developing coronary heart disease, stroke, and general cardiovascular disease.
Your heart needs the recuperative power of sleep just as much as the rest of your body. Getting enough high quality, uninterrupted sleep allows your heart to repair and recover (9) from the stresses of the day.
Type 2 Diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is an increasingly common chronic condition characterized by increased blood glucose levels and poor insulin sensitivity (10). Since this condition can be caused by lifestyle issues, people with type 2 diabetes are often encouraged to change their diet, increase their activity levels, and stop unhealthy habits like smoking and drinking.
While diet and exercise are crucial for controlling diabetes, sleep also plays a key role in the development and progression of type 2 diabetes. Even in otherwise healthy individuals, a lack of sleep may contribute to the early stages of type 2 diabetes by reducing insulin sensitivity (11).
If you already have type 2 diabetes, insufficient or restless sleep may make it harder to control your blood sugar (12). Insufficient sleep can also worsen some of the secondary symptoms of advanced type 2 diabetes, such as the hardening of arteries (13).
Medical professionals worldwide have sought for decades to understand Alzheimer’s disease better. This neurological disorder is a progressive disease (14) that occurs in adults, usually emerging in their mid-60s. It causes a severe loss of cognitive and behavioral functioning that worsens over time and cannot be reversed. Research into its causes is still ongoing, but experts do know that the disease is associated with abnormal protein accumulations in the brain called amyloid plaques and tau tangles.
Despite the ongoing need for further research, sleep has emerged as one of the strongest lifestyle predictors for Alzheimer’s disease. Adults in their 40s, 50s, and 60s who reported poor sleep quality were more likely to have early signs of abnormal protein deposits in their brains (15).
Researchers now think that sleep quality could serve as a marker for your risk of developing Alzheimer’s. One study showed that neuroscientists could accurately estimate the risk and time frame (16) for the onset of Alzheimer’s based on a person’s sleep patterns.
This research provides a potentially powerful insight into Alzheimer’s. Although there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s, getting plenty of high-quality, restorative sleep could help protect against (17) the onset of this disease.
Chronic pain persists for weeks, months, and even years and takes a considerable toll both psychologically and physically. Like many other health markers, sleep is also implicated in pain disorders.
Researchers still don’t fully understand the relationship between pain and sleep, but there’s a clear association between poor sleep and chronic pain (18). While pain seems to have less of an effect on sleep than might be expected, poor sleep appears to increase the likelihood of chronic pain in both the short and the long term. It seems that sleep of sufficient quality and quantity may offer protection against chronic pain, while also reducing its day-to-day effects.
Getting a full night’s sleep can feel like an insurmountable challenge when you’re facing constant discomfort. If a chronic pain disorder such as arthritis or fibromyalgia stops you from getting enough sleep, speak to your healthcare team about your options. Lifestyle changes, such as ensuring your mattress is both supportive and pressure-relieving, may also help you sleep easier.
Strengthen Your Immune System
Given sleep’s complicated effects on the body, it may come as no surprise that sleep also helps to regulate your immunity. In fact, your immune system and your circadian rhythm (the internal system that regulates your sleep-wake cycle) are closely coordinated with each other (19).
Even relatively short bouts of insufficient sleep can decrease your immune response (20). Insufficient sleep may even reduce the immunity gained from some vaccinations. Adults who reported shorter sleep durations experienced a reduced response to the flu vaccine (21).
Improve Your Mood
The benefits of sleep don’t stop at your physical health. The quality of your sleep also significantly impacts your overall mood (22) and mental well-being.
Sleep allows your brain to process the events of the day (23) and refresh itself for the next morning, which may be one reason why it's not unusual to feel on edge after getting a terrible night of sleep. When you don’t have a chance to revive yourself with restorative sleep, you’re more likely to have negative emotional reactions as you go about your day. Losing out on quality sleep over time can also make you more likely to suffer from a mood disorder like depression (24) or anxiety (25).
Fortunately, seeking treatment for mood disorders can improve your quality of sleep (26). And even if you’d just had a bad day, getting a full night’s rest can help you reset your mood and prepare you to face the challenges of a new day.
Avoid Driving While Drowsy
If you’re running a sleep deficit, you could be taking a risk when you get behind the wheel. Like alcohol consumption, a lack of sleep decreases your alertness and compromises your decision-making.
As a result, being drowsy behind the wheel can have a serious effect on driving performance (27), including:
- Visual tracking
- Braking reaction time
- Lane changing time
Being awake for 18 hours or more has the same effect on driving (28) as having a 0.05% blood alcohol level. And one study found that sleep deprivation led to even worse reaction times and vehicle control than alcohol intoxication. These effects make sleepy drivers more prone to traffic accidents. If you plan to get behind the wheel, make sure you’ve gotten enough sleep and consider taking a quick nap if it's starting to get late.
The health benefits of getting enough sleep are far-reaching. By taking steps to make sure you get enough sleep each night, you can control your weight, protect yourself against common chronic diseases, strengthen your immune system, boost your mental health, and stay safe behind the wheel.
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Stress and sleep are closely related. Understanding the relationship between sleep and stress is an important step to managing stress and improving sleep.
When people think of healthy sleep, they often think of getting a certain amount of sleep every night. This is referred to as sleep quantity. While sleep quantity is definitely important, it is not the only factor in getting a good night’s sleep. Just as important—and perhaps even more important—is sleep quality. This means regularly getting healthy, consistent sleep that allows your body to go through all of the restorative processes that are necessary to maintain our overall health.
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