We’ve all been there at least once: tossing and turning in bed while your mind runs in circles. The next day is rough. You walk around like a zombie, filling your mug with coffee as often as possible through the day. Some nights, you’re so wired from all the caffeine you’ve consumed during the day, you end up in bed wide awake…again.
Although having a bad night every now and again is usual, it’s becoming more and more common for people to spend most of their nights (and days) in this fashion. According to the CDC, more than 30% of American adults aren’t getting enough sleep.
If you’re a new parent, busy professional, are constantly traveling, or a person who spends a lot of time on electronic devices, chances are you don’t sleep as often or as much as you should.
The phrase “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” is thrown around often enough. It’s certainly part of the pervasive work-over-everything mentality so common in business these days. However, science has shown that chronic sleep deprivation poses a huge health risk.
Here’s what you need to know about the benefits of sleep, the risks of not sleeping, and how you can promote quality sleep every night.
How We Sleep
Before we get into the benefits, it’s important to know what happens when you sleep. As you probably already know, there are four stages of sleep. The two most important are SWS (slow-wave sleep), or NREM (non-REM), and REM (rapid eye movement). Once we fall asleep, we cycle through both these stages every couple of hours.
These two types of sleep help us to recuperate physically and mentally. Cycling through these two patterns is an essential part of getting “quality” sleep. If you’re consistently waking up every hour, it’s likely you’re not getting through enough cycles, even if you’re in bed for 8 hours.
Unless you live in a place where afternoon naps are common, most of us should get one big 7-9 hour sleep per day. That amount seems to be the sweet spot for getting all the great benefits sleep provides, such as:
The nitty-gritty science of how sleep impacts your hormones is slightly complicated. What you need to know is this: the proper secretion of the hormones melatonin (the sleep hormone), cortisol (the stress hormone), leptin (the “I’m full” hormone), ghrelin (the hunger hormone), insulin (blood sugar hormone) and human growth hormone are all correlated with sleep and our circadian rhythm.
If you’re one of those who don’t sleep enough or well, these hormonal rhythms get thrown off. When these hormones aren’t regulated properly, you may be at greater risk for obesity, insulin insensitivity, diabetes, hormonal imbalances, and appetite issues.
Sex hormones, such as testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone are also impacted by sleep. Science has found a correlation between low testosterone and a lack of sleep.
Brain Function (alertness, mood, focus, quickness)
Your brain needs sleep in order to function properly. Studies have found those who don’t often get a full night’s sleep are at greater risk for depression and anxiety. Sleep also helps to galvanize the brain cells, clear waste, and may actually make you smarter.
Scientists have found sleep can vastly improve your chances of remembering information and can improve memory quality. In a recent study, participants were asked to remember made-up words before a night’s sleep or before 12 hours of being awake. Those who slept were able to recall the words much better than those who remained awake.
Although it may seem like unconscious thought is unorganized and random, it turns out that it’s an active, directive process. Sleep helps the brain function more quickly and retain more information.
Physical Recovery from Exercise
If you’re into fitness, sleep needs to be a priority. Protein synthesis occurs during sleep, as well as the release of Human Growth Hormone. Each of these is essential in muscle recovery as well as body composition changes.
No matter if you’re a weekend warrior or a competitive athlete, sleep is essential to helping you perform at your very best.
Immune System Function
During sleep, your immune system releases proteins called cytokines. These molecules regulate inflammation and immunity. It’s thought that, without the proper amount of sleep each night, cytokine production may decrease.
Other antibodies that can protect the body from disease or infection can also be reduced when you don’t sleep enough. In the most basic sense, a chronic lack of sleep can make you ill.
Heart and Blood Pressure Health
It’s common knowledge that sleep helps to regulate cortisol (the stress hormone). If cortisol is not regulated properly though lack of sleep, it’s thought that it may cause people to be at a higher risk for stress-related high blood pressure.
Your nervous system’s health is an important part of your physical health. Stress can cause a lot of harm to the body, so it’s important those hormones are released in the right amount at the right time.
Although the science is still relatively new, researchers have found that during sleep, individual neurons perform maintenance work on the nucleus. If you recall from high-school chemistry, the nucleus of the cell holds all the genetic material. Allowing our cells to repair themselves through sleep is hugely beneficial to our overall health and longevity.
How to Sleep Better
For those of us who don’t often sleep well, learning to do so can be a challenge. There are a few things you can do, however, to help prepare your brain and body for sleep:
Set Up a Sleep Routine
Do the same thing every night before you go to bed. Start getting ready for bed an hour before you should actually be in bed. Just because you’re “in bed by 9:30” doesn’t mean you’re sleeping—that hour you spend scrolling through Instagram does not count as an hour of sleep, even if you do it snuggled under the covers.
Sleep-promoting neurons become active as we get ready for bed. These neurons tell hormones, such as GABA, to release. GABA promotes muscle relaxation and sleep.
Your sleep routine could look something like this:
- 9:00 p.m. light stretching for 15 minutes
- 9:15 p.m. brush teeth/wash face/take shower (whatever hygiene practice you like)
- 9:30 p.m. read in bed (magazine, book, audiobook, newspaper)
- 10:00 p.m. lights out
You may need a few weeks of tweaking before you find the routine and the time that works best for your schedule and your body. Once you find it, keep doing it.
Darken and Cool Your Room
Science tells us that sleeping in a dark, cool room is one of the best ways to promote sleep. Darkness tells your body to secrete sleep hormones. During the summer when it’s light for a long time, investing in black-out curtains can help.
Your bedroom should also be cool. Your body naturally cools while you sleep, so a cool room can help promote sleep earlier. Turn on your air conditioner in the summer or get a fan. In the winter, you can turn down your heat at night.
Stop Using Electronics Early
Blue light, or the light that comes out of your mobile device, turns your brain to wake-up mode. Many of the contemporary sleep problems occur because people are using their devices too late in the evening.
For best results, stop using your phone, tablet, or laptop about 2 hours before bedtime. If your constantly “on,” you may have to find something new to do with your free time. Some healthy, non-device activities could be:
- Going for a walk
- Playing with your kids
- Talking/connecting with your partner
- Meal prepping for the next day
Eat and Drink
Depending on when you eat dinner, you may need a little bit of a snack before you hit the sack. Providing your body with the calories it needs will help with proper hormone secretion and will ensure you don’t wake up hungry.
If your diet allows, dairy is a good choice. Greek yogurt, milk, kefir, and cheese have casein, a slow-digesting protein that can help keep you sated through the night.
Set a Goal for Sleep
If any of this hit a little too close to home, it’s probably time for you to start making sleep a bigger priority in your life. It’s never too late to start self-improvement projects—you definitely don’t need to wait until the New Year to begin healthier habits.
For the next couple of weeks, set a bedtime alarm and start your bedtime routine when it goes off. Don’t let anything get in the way of you finding the way to your bed.
Every inch of your body, from your cells, to your brain, to your muscles need sleep to function optimally. With a full night’s sleep, you’ll perform better at work, be in a better mood, and have energy to play with your kids when you get home.