How Sleep Impacts Your Mental and Physical Well-Being
We all know that sleep is important, but many people push back their bedtime to accommodate a busy life. While neglecting sleep may seem productive in the moment, a sleep deficit can severely impact on almost every area of mental and physical health. On the other hand, getting enough sleep can help reduce inflammation, make it easier to maintain a healthy weight, and improve everything from mental health to memory. Given that over 30% of Americans don’t get enough sleep (1), it’s worth considering the many benefits of sleeping soundly.
How Much Sleep Do I Need?
You might be thinking that you’re sleeping an adequate amount each night. The truth is, you could be severely under-sleeping according to the current recommended sleep duration (2) for your age group.
- Newborns: 16-18 hours a day
- Preschool-Aged Children: 11-12 hours a day
- School-Aged Children: At least 10 hours a day
- Teens: 9-10 hours a day
- Adults: 7-8 hours a day
Adults should sleep for 7-8 hours a night, but over 30% of Americans report getting less than six hours of sleep per night. When you’re not getting enough sleep, your body accumulates a sleep debt, a sleep deficit that can add up over time and impact your well-being.
Helps Improve your Health
Losing sleep can mean that your body is less prepared to fight off viruses, infections and can make you more susceptible to conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure (3). When you are tired your body produces more cortisol, a hormone that impacts stress. This hormone is also closely linked to heart attacks and heart disease.
Adequate sleep also has a direct impact on lesser-known parts of our immune system. The Centers for Disease Control reports that reducing your sleep by even a few hours can drastically decrease the effectiveness of the NK cells that help fight off tumors (4). In a follow-up survey, researchers discovered that reducing the ability of these NK cells was associated with a higher risk of cancer mortality.
Are you getting a vaccine soon? Vaccines appear to be more effective if you’ve had enough sleep. A study in 2012 found that getting adequate sleep after a vaccine helped the body produce the necessary amount of T-cells to fight off viruses (5).
Helps With Inflammation
Chronic inflammation is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer (6), among many other health concerns. Researchers have found that sleep deprivation can seriously impact your body’s inflammation levels, enough that people who sleep poorly are more likely to develop chronic inflammation.
Inflammation is also closely tied to many skin conditions. Disrupting our body’s circadian rhythms can lead to increased skin inflammation (7), as can some sleep disorders such as sleep apnea.
Reduces Impact of Depression
Getting a good night’s sleep helps everyone feel refreshed and ready for the day ahead, but people who suffer from depression may experience an even greater benefit.
Depression is a mental health disorder that affects over 300 million people (8) a year worldwide. 80% (9) of people suffering from depression report experiencing at least one symptom of insomnia, and the struggle to sleep worsens with age.
Research shows that treating sleep disturbances alongside depression helps reduce the overall impact of depression’s symptoms. In a 2016 study, using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to address sleep/wake behaviors improved the quality of sleep (10) in test participants. This, in turn, ultimately reduced their symptoms of depression. CBT is a therapeutic modality that works to create behavioral change by addressing the thoughts and feelings that drive behavior (11). Subsequent studies also support using CBT to treat sleep disorders (12) and alleviate the impact of depression’s symptoms.
Reduces Impact of Anxiety
Anxiety disorders, which affect 20% of Americans (13), can substantially impact both health and well-being. As with many mental health conditions, anxiety disorders can also make it harder to sleep. Symptoms of anxiety (14), both physical and mental, can prevent people from getting the rest they need. Sleep deprivation, in turn, can then trigger or exacerbate (15) the symptoms of anxiety.
There is some good news. Studies show that common treatments for anxiety (16), such as CBT, also help address sleeping issues. Low impact movements, like yoga or tai chi, have also been shown to reduce anxiety and increase the quality of sleep (17). These and other relaxation exercises can easily be integrated into sleep routines, helping to both manage anxiety and increase the likelihood of a good night’s rest.
Helps With Weight
Exhausted adults who sleep less than their peers are more likely to be overweight or obese (18). A 2019 study found that making up for sleep debt by sleeping in during the weekend had no counter effects on weight gain (19), meaning that people who want to maintain a lower weight may want to consider making sleep a nightly priority.
Sleep deprivation directly affects the levels of two hormones (20), ghrelin and leptin, that are closely tied to hunger and weight. Levels of ghrelin — the so-called “hunger hormone” — increase, stimulating your appetite. The counterpart to ghrelin is leptin, a hormone that the body uses to tell your brain that you’re full. Leptin levels decrease when you’re tired, making it harder to stop eating even once you’re satiated.
Sleep can also help if you’re looking to gain weight. Studies show that sleep impacts your body’s ability to repair and gain muscle. Researchers in 2019 found that sleep deprivation improved weight lifters' endurance (21) and weight capacity when training. Since physical activity also positively impacts sleep quality, it’s a win-win situation!
Helps Improve Memory and Learning
If you want to do well on an upcoming test, you better make sure you’re getting enough sleep! Research shows that sleep directly impacts our ability to retain and learn new information (22). It also improves our mood, problem-solving ability, and overall memory. Getting enough shut-eye gives your brain enough time to build neurological connections, a key factor in both memory and cognition, enhancing your ability to learn and remember when you’re awake.
Improves Performance and Productivity
Not getting enough sleep can make you feel drowsy, forgetful, and lethargic. Lack of sleep can impair your ability to complete high functioning tasks (23), which in turn can reduce job performance. Getting enough sleep means that when you’re at work you’re safer on the job and are able to respond quicker. When you’re exhausted you are less likely to feel motivated to be productive, allowing tasks at work or home to slip by unattended which can lead to stress further down the road. Sleep also reduces mood swings (24) and provides better emotional capacity to deal with upsetting situations.
How to Get Better Sleep
With just a few lifestyle changes, you can see an improvement in your sleeping patterns and quality. Start by looking at your current nighttime routine. Are you eating too close before you go to bed? Are you sleeping on an old mattress? Are you staring at your screen while in bed? The way we prepare for sleep can impact how we fall asleep and stay asleep.
Creating a sleep hygiene protocol that you can stick to most nights will go a long way towards improving your sleep. If you still struggle to get enough shut-eye, consider speaking to your doctor about potential sleep disorders that might be standing in your way...
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