Often overlooked as one of the easiest ways to reclaim our health, sleep gets a bad rap! In this modern age of pushing ourselves to the limit, with the hope that we’ll fit as much as possible into our 24 hours, most of us forgo eight hours sleep a night, and end up getting much less.
Sadly, the truth is that missing out on the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep a night can have long-term effects on our mental and physical wellbeing.
Why Sleep is Important
A good night’s sleep is vital to our physical and mental health as well as our emotional wellbeing. In fact, after researching all the things a lack of sleep will do to our bodies and mind, it becomes apparent that getting enough sleep is way more important than most of us think it is.
To function optimally – physically, emotionally and mentally – our bodies require sleep.
Most of us don’t realise what we are doing to our bodies by not getting enough sleep. Ironically, in an age where we are always on the lookout for ways to transform our lives, we seem to have forgotten the most transformative action (along with exercise) that there is – the miracle drug within our control: sleep.
Currently one in three suffer from poor sleep, with stress, computers and taking work home being the worst sleep disruptors.
The long-term effects of sleep deprivation are real. It drains our mental abilities and puts our physical health at real risk. Science has linked poor slumber with all kinds of health problems. (Read on below for a wake-up call of note!)
The reality is that our bodies need sleep, just as they need air and food to function optimally.
During sleep, the body heals itself and restores its chemical balance. The brain forges new connections and helps memory retention. Without enough sleep, the brain and body systems won’t function normally.
The benefits of good sleep should never be underestimated and getting regular rest isn’t just a good idea, it’s essential. Sleep is the most important form of self-care. It is our natural reset button and vital for good health.
It would appear that one of the best things you could possibly do with your time is sleep, and over the coming holiday period, fixing your sleeping habits could quite possibly be the very best way to spend your precious leave days!
How Much Sleep do we Need?
While a tiny percentage of the population can function on very little sleep, those people are incredibly rare. Almost 40% of the population doesn’t get enough sleep!
A review of 16 studies found that sleeping for less than six to eight hours a night increases the risk of early death by 12 percent.
Most adults need about eight hours of good-quality sleep a night in order to function properly.
If you wake up tired and spend the day longing for a chance to take a nap, then it’s likely that you’re not getting enough sleep at night.
It’s important to find out for yourself how much sleep you need (usually between the range of seven to nine hours) and then aim to achieve that consistently every night (including weekends and holidays).
Signs of Sleep Deprivation
Stimulants like caffeine aren’t enough to override the body’s profound need for sleep.
Behind the scenes, chronic sleep deprivation can interfere with the body’s internal systems and cause more than just the initial signs and symptoms listed above.
These are the main signs of sleep deprivation
- excessive sleepiness
- daytime fatigue
Read on to find out how sleep deprivation affects specific body functions and systems.
How Sleep Deprivation Affects The Body & The Health Risks of Not Getting Enough Sleep
Central Nervous System
The central nervous system is the information highway of the body. Sleep is necessary to keep it functioning properly, but chronic insomnia can disrupt how the body usually sends information. The signals your body sends may be delayed, decreasing coordination and concentration skills and increasing accidents.
Sleep deprivation can negatively affect mental abilities and emotional state. It can compromise decision-making processes and creativity. A lack of sleep can also trigger mania in people who have bipolar depression.
Other psychological risks include:
- impulsive behaviour
- suicidal thoughts
Sleep deprivation prevents your immune system from building up forces to fend off invaders. A lack of sleep may cause a longer recovery from illness. Long-term sleep deprivation also increases your risk for other chronic illnesses.
Sleep deprivation can make existing respiratory diseases, such as chronic lung illness, worse.
Along with eating too much and not exercising, sleep deprivation is a risk factor for becoming overweight and obese. Sleep deprivation prompts your body to release higher levels of insulin after you eat which in turn promotes fat storage and increases your risk for type 2 diabetes.
People who don’t sleep enough are more likely to get cardiovascular disease. Sleep affects processes that keep your heart and blood vessels healthy, including your blood sugar, blood pressure, and inflammation levels. It also plays a vital role in your body’s ability to heal and repair the blood vessels and heart.
Hormone production is dependent on sleep. Waking up throughout the night could affect hormone production. For testosterone production, at least three hours of uninterrupted sleep is required, which is about the time of the first REM episode.
The Benefits of Sleep
Let’s lighten the mood slightly and switch things around to focus on all the benefits of good sleep.
Incredibly, sleep is one of the easiest (and free!) ways to improve your life. Here are some of the top benefits of getting enough sleep.
If your body doesn’t get enough sleep, it reacts by producing an elevated level of the stress hormone, cortisol. Fortunately deep and regular sleep can help to prevent this from happening, thus good sleep helps to keep our stress levels stable.
Most new moms will be familiar with “brain fog”, but it can affect other people too! This is the brain telling you that it’s not getting enough sleep. During good-quality sleep the body rests, but the brain is busy organising and storing memories. Getting more quality sleep will help our brains to remember and process things better, which is why regular naps while studying for exams is essential (and something my son takes very seriously).
Lower blood pressure
High blood pressure increases the chances of having a heart attack or stroke, but getting plenty of sleep encourages a constant state of relaxation in the body that can help to reduce blood pressure and keep it under control.
Boost immune system
Prolonged lack of sleep can disrupt the immune system, making it less able to fend off bugs. Lack of sleep prior to exposure to a virus will make the body much more susceptible due to a weakened immune system. When researchers exposed a group of 153 people to the common cold, those who had been sleeping less than seven hours a night were almost three times more likely to catch the virus. Sleeping is one way you can actively improve your chances of avoiding illness. While you’re sleeping your body is producing extra protein molecules that can strengthen your ability to fight infection, so if you are feeling a bit run-down and would rather not deal with full-blown flu then it’s a good idea to get to bed early and rest, rest, rest.
Reduce the risk of cancer
People who work night shifts often have disrupted circadian cycles and don’t sleep enough; studies have shown that night workers are more likely to encounter some serious health problems such as colon and breast cancer.
Studies have shown that people who sleep fewer than seven hours a day tend to gain more weight and have a higher risk of becoming obese than those who get seven hours of sleep. Unfortunately, sleep won’t impact on weight loss directly, but sleep can help to keep weight under control by regulating hormones such as leptin (the hormone that makes you feel full) and ghrelin (the hunger-stimulating hormone).
According to researchers at the University of Chicago, well-rested dieters lose as much as 55 percent more fat than sleep-deprived ones.
Lack of sleep can make anyone more agitated, and more likely to snap at the boss or be grumpy with their spouse (neither a good idea!). If a single sleepless night can increase irritability and moodiness the following day, it’s no surprise that chronic sleep debt can lead to long-term mood disorders, like depression and anxiety. Sleep-deprived people are more emotionally volatile and more easily irritated. According to a study published by an Israeli research team, sleep deprivation amplifies negative emotions caused by small things like interruptions. The better the sleep you get, the better your ability to stay, calm, controlled and reasonable.
A lack of sleep increases the chances of feeling down. In one study, on 909 working women, a poor night’s rest affected happiness as much as a tight work deadline, and it had an even bigger impact on mood than significant income differences in the group. People who sleep less tend to have more symptoms of depression, lower self esteem, and more anxiety. Interestingly, when people with anxiety or depression were surveyed to calculate their sleeping habits, it turned out that most of them slept less than six hours a night. People with insomnia were ten times as likely to be depressed as those who slept soundly.
Some research studies have shown that not getting enough deep sleep may lead to type 2 diabetes – a disease that can lead to strokes, amputations, blindness, and organ damage. This is because a lack of sleep can change the way the body processes glucose, which the body uses for energy, leading to otherwise healthy adults losing their ability to control blood sugar. Compared to adults who sleep seven to eight hours a night, people who sleep six hours are 1.7 times more likely to develop diabetes, and people who sleep five hours are 2.5 times more likely to develop diabetes.
Make the heart happier
A regular sleep pattern can help to lower the levels of stress and inflammation in your cardiovascular system, which in turn can reduce the chances of a stroke or heart condition. Long-standing sleep deprivation seems to be associated with an increased heart rate and higher levels of certain chemicals linked with inflammation, which can put extra strain on the heart. One large study found that sleeping five hours or less a night was associated with a 45% increased risk for heart attacks.
Not getting enough sleep makes people more sensitive to pain — which can lead to a terrible cycle for chronic pain sufferers. Tests show that keeping people up all night makes it easier for them to feel pain and that not getting enough sleep can interfere with the pain relief processes of certain drugs. Getting good sleep can function like low level pain medication. So for those suffering pain from a recent injury the good news is that sleep can make the pain feel less severe. Many studies have shown a link between sleep loss and a lower pain threshold, so the more sleep you get, the less pain you feel!
Sleep plays a critical role in thinking and learning. Lack of sleep hurts these cognitive processes in many ways. It impairs attention, alertness, concentration, reasoning, and problem solving, making it more difficult to learn efficiently. The more tired someone is, the harder it is for them to concentrate on something. In order to remain focussed — either on the job or in a conversation — get some rest. A great night’s sleep (or a quick daytime nap) can contribute towards making the brain more effective, productive, sharper, attentive and focused throughout the day.
Research suggests that men and women who don’t get enough quality sleep have lower libidos, are more likely to have sexual problems like erectile dysfunction, and have less of an interest in intercourse. Depleted energy, sleepiness, and increased tension may also be to blame. Additionally men who suffer from sleep apnoea – a disorder in which breathing difficulties lead to interrupted sleep – also tend to have lower testosterone levels, which can lower libido. The good news is that getting better sleep increases testosterone levels which boosts sexual drive for both men and women.
Difficulty conceiving is one of the effects of sleep deprivation and affects both men and women. Regular sleep disruptions can cause these troubles by reducing the secretion of reproductive hormones.
While sleeping, the body – and skin – heals itself. The body sends moisture where it’s needed and gets rid of the excess. Cut this process short, and wake up with more obvious eye bags and wrinkles. Chronic sleep loss can lead to lacklustre skin, fine lines, and dark circles under the eyes. When you don’t get enough sleep, your body releases cortisol and, in excess, cortisol can break down skin collagen, the protein that keeps skin smooth and elastic. Sleep loss also causes the body to release less of the human growth hormone. During the deeper phases of sleep, the body produces growth hormone, which helps to increase muscle mass, thicken skin and strengthen bones, as well as repair daily damage from the sun and pollution. It also creates new cells leaving skin looking brighter, fresher, and more vibrant. A study published in Clinical and Experimental Dermatology found that “good sleepers” recovered better after ultraviolet light exposure, and their skin showed fewer signs of aging. That’s why bedtime can be a great time to apply a hardworking night cream to accelerate the restorative process. Skimping on sleep also increases your levels of inflammation which can aggravate skin problems like acne, psoriasis, and eczema.
Researchers have tested college athletes and, while overall strength isn’t affected by losing a night’s sleep, one sleepless night affects reaction time significantly. The researchers theorise that this is probably caused by a diminished ability to use information to make decisions.
Our bodies don’t function well without sleep; they get tired and our eyes get tired. The longer you stay awake, the more vision errors you make, ranging from tunnel vision to seeing double to hallucinations.
Staying awake too long can cause slurred speech, repetitive word usage, and a slow, monotonous tone. Get some rest before your next big presentation.
If you don’t sleep, you can’t build muscle; your body uses most of the night (except when you are in REM sleep) to heal damage done to your cells and tissues when you are awake and more metabolically active. At the start of the night and during slow-wave sleep, your body also releases growth hormone which is why sleep is so important for children.
Driving drunk is life-threatening, to yourself and others–but did you know that so is drowsy driving! Tests have shown that sleep-deprived drivers perform exactly like alcohol-impaired drivers, and both are a common cause of serious injuries and even death. Drivers who are sleep-deprived are responsible for 1,500 deaths every year. Get more sleep before driving distances, and take regular breaks on long road trips.
Manage finances better
Aside from the savings you will make from fewer medical bills associated with lack of sleep and the health-related issues listed here, and possibly even lower medical aid and life insurance premiums, you’ll also be less likely to make risky financial decisions if you get a good night’s rest. When people are tired, the way they make financial decisions changes and, instead of trying to minimise loss, they start looking for risky gains. That’s a good reason to make sure you sleep before making any big buys.
Decrease alcohol abuse
According to the Institute of Medicine, sleep problems are associated with alcohol abuse and adolescents who sleep enough are less likely to abuse alcohol. Adolescents who have sleeping problems are more likely to develop problems associated with alcohol abuse. Researchers believe that having a disrupted circadian rhythm causes changes in the reward system of the brain. This, in turn, makes those adolescents more likely to engage in risky behaviour and to develop alcohol use disorders.
Get fewer headaches
Getting enough sleep helps prevent migraines and other headaches. Multiple studies show that people who don’t sleep enough are more likely to suffer migraines. Additionally, 36 to 58% of sleep apnoea sufferers wake up with a throbbing head.
Make fewer mistakes
We make more mistakes when we don’t get enough sleep, but this carelessness can be serious. Sleep deprivation was a factor in some of the biggest disasters in recent history, like the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown. But it’s not just these major events; studies show that all sleep-deprived workers are much more likely to have a dangerous accident on the job. In one study, workers who complained about excessive daytime sleepiness had significantly more work accidents, particularly repeated work accidents. They also had more sick days per accident.
Lack of sleep can affect our interpretation of events which, in turn, hurts our ability to make sound judgments because we may not assess situations accurately and act on them wisely. Sleep-deprived people seem to be especially prone to bad judgment when it comes to identifying what a lack of sleep is doing to them. In our increasingly fast-paced world, functioning on less sleep has become a kind of badge of honour. However, sleep specialists say that if you think you’re doing fine on less sleep, you’re probably wrong. The reality is that if you work in a profession where it’s important to be able to judge your level of functioning, a lack of sleep, and the inability to realise its effects, can be a hazard.
How to Catch up on Lost Sleep
If you don’t get enough sleep, there’s only one way to compensate – getting more sleep. Sadly, this won’t happen with a single early night. If you’ve had months of restricted sleep, then you’ll have to make up for significant sleep debt, so recovery may take a few weeks.
Starting on a weekend, try to add an extra hour or two of sleep each night. Go to bed when you’re tired, and then allow your body to wake you in the morning without an alarm clock.
Expect to sleep for upwards of 10 hours initially. The amount of time will gradually decrease to a normal level.
I recently had a very late night (for me!) when I was helping at a school function until 1am. The next morning I had a very generous husband allow me to sleep in and, when I woke I thought it was 8am, but it was 11am! Just goes to show how much sleep my body felt it was missing from that one late night.
NB: During this process don’t rely on caffeine or energy drinks as a short-term pick-me-up. They may boost your energy and concentration temporarily, but they can disrupt your sleep patterns even further in the long-term.
How to Get Better Sleep – 5 Tips For Improving Your Sleep
A variety of factors can cause poor sleep, including health conditions such as sleep apnoea. But in most cases, it’s due to bad sleeping habits.
Here are a few suggestions to help you on your way to getting better sleep–and improving your long-term health in the process.
1.Separate out your sleep space
Separate your work and private life more clearly. Decide in advance which hours are work time and which hours are non-work time. This is especially critical if you work from home!
Stop working at least one to two hours before bedtime, and do not work while you are in bed.
Avoid working, eating, or even having a heated discussion with your significant other in your sleeping environment. Associate your bed with sleep and sex only.
Strengthening the association between your bed and sleep may help you clear your mind at bedtime, and this will make it easier for you to relax and wind down, and may decrease your nocturnal awakenings.
2. Routine is required
Improve your bedtime routine and regularity by ensuring that your bedtime always falls within a fixed 60-minute period.–for example, between 21h30 and 22h30 every night. This will help you develop a robust circadian clock.
It is also advisable to improve your wake-up time regularity. Ensure that you get up within the same 60-minute period every day–like between 06h00 and 07h00, for example
A consistent sleep schedule is a critical part of developing good sleep habits, as frequently changing the times you go to bed and wake up confuses your biological clock. Following a regular schedule, even on weekends and while on holiday, can help you get the rest you need.
To stick to a schedule, prepare your mind and body for sleep by developing a relaxing bedtime routine that begins at the same time each evening. Popular bedtime routines include taking a warm bath (if water restrictions don’t cramp your style), listening to soothing music, reading a book, burning a scented candle, applying a face mask, practicing yoga, meditating or praying.
Essentially it’s about doing activities that help your body and mind to wind down. This will signal to your body that bedtime is coming and help you fall asleep quicker and more easily.
3. Eliminate electronics
Keep light exposure to a minimum in the two hours prior to bedtime; rather use candles, or dim overhead lights.
Try to separate your sleep space from the stress, tension and stimulation of daily life by establishing an electronic-free zone in your bedroom.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, the presence of electronic devices, such as laptops and mobile phones, can make it harder to fall asleep.
The blue light from glowing electronic screens suppresses your body’s production of melatonin, an important hormone for sleep, so it’s best to avoid watching tv, using your laptop, or checking your phone in bed. If you must use electronics in the evening then install F.Lux on your Mac or PC, and set up Night Shift or Blue Light Filter on your iOS or Android devices.
Schedule a “do-not-disturb” mode on your phone for one hour before bedtime or, better yet, install a timer on your wifi router plug so it goes off automatically at a certain hour, reminding you to head to bed.
If you do happen to wake up in the middle of the night, or have been struggling to fall asleep for a while, don’t be tempted to turn on the tv or check your texts. These stimulating activities will only make it harder for you to get into sleep mode, so try to not to expose yourself to bright light, extreme temperatures, or loud sounds in the wee hours.
4. Don’t drink (caffeine, alcohol or too much water)
What you drink in the hours before bedtime can make or break your ability to fall asleep.
Caffeine and alcohol are two common sleep disruptors.
Alcohol is a sedative that can make you tired, but it also disrupts the quality of your sleep, which can leave you feeling groggy the next morning. Avoid drinking alcohol within three hours of bedtime, and limit yourself to one to two drinks per day.
Caffeine is a stimulant that can keep you awake. So avoid drinking caffeinated beverages, such as coffee or soda, in the late afternoon or evening, as the effects of caffeine can take six to eight hours to wear off.
Don’t drink too much water before bed either to avoid unnecessary midnight trips to the bathroom.
If, however, you are struggling to fall asleep you could drink something with a calming effect before bed, such as hot herbal tea or warm milk.
5. Create a sleep sanctuary
Create a sleep sanctuary that welcomes you in to its warm embrace when you head to bed.
In summer open the windows and let some fresh air into the room, while in winter ensure that the room temperature is warm.
Cast a critical eye over your sleep space–is your bed comfortable, large enough and giving you enough support? It might need to be replaced if you’ve had it for more than 10 years. Do you wake up with a sore neck? You may need to invest in a memory foam pillow.
A new bed, mattress, pillow, or comforter could make a huge difference to your sleep quality.
It’s also important to consider if your room is sound and light proof as both light and sound can disrupt your sleep. Ideally your bedroom should be dark, quiet and cool for optimal sleep, so invest in blackout blinds (or an eye mask if budget doesn’t stretch that far).
Remember, if you can’t fall asleep after 30 minutes of lying in your bed it’s far better to get up and enjoy some relaxing activities, and try again when you feel more at rest.
And if, after trying all these tips, sleep still remains a struggle, please speak to your doctor.
An underlying health condition may be affecting your ability to sleep and your doctor is best placed to recommend any lifestyle changes, medications or other strategies that could help you get the sleep you need.
If you’ve ever thought that sleep doesn’t really matter all that much I hope this article has helped you to realise just how vital good sleep habits are! Sleep matters a great deal.
Remember, better sleep means a better you!
What are your tips for great sleep? I’d love to hear from you so please do leave a comment below…