Getting enough sleep is not a luxury reserved for the weekends or when you’re on vacation. Sure, we’re more likely to get a good night’s sleep when our schedules feel less cramped, or when there’s an inviting hammock swaying between two palm trees. But the reality of daily life is that your schedule is likely crowded for the long haul, and vacations only happen every so often throughout the year. You owe it to your health to get a good night’s sleep every night. Your body will thank you for it, too. It turns out that sleep has some very important connections to your health. Simply put, you can’t afford to skimp.
According to the National Institutes of Health, “sleep services all aspects of our body in one way or another: molecular, energy balance, as well as intellectual function, alertness and mood.” And we’re not talking about low-quality, intermittent sleep. Your body requires the real deal: deep sleep that nourishes you both inside and out.
Sleep and Health Risks
All too many people suffer from poor sleep health, unfortunately. And there’s a heavy penalty to pay. Harvard Medical School reports that studies repeatedly demonstrate a link between insufficient sleep and a person’s risk factor for “developing serious medical conditions, including obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.”
In fact, over time, insufficient sleep has been “associated with a shortened lifespan.” Part of the problem is that you may feel fine in the short term, but accumulated years of inadequate sleep will compile – and be complicated by additional factors such as “genetics, poor nutrition, and lack of exercise.”
Although this can make it hard to isolate health risks associated with poor sleep duration and habits, there does not seem to be much doubt in the scientific community that sufficient sleep has an important connection to your personal health. The Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School states that sleep “plays a critical role in immune function, metabolism, memory, learning, and other vital functions.”
In “Sleep Health,” the journal of the National Sleep Foundation, researchers note that sleeping “outside the normal range” of recommended sleep may cause people to exhibit “signs or symptoms of serious health problems,” resulting in compromising their “health and well-being.”
And it’s not just the quantity of sleep, but the quality. Scientific research demonstrates that for biological processes to complete, deep sleep must be present. Poor sleep scheduling, including cat napping throughout the night, is not going to cut it. For better health, keep a close watch for sleep loss and take preventative steps when you can.
Taking a Look at the Numbers
What do we mean by “good sleep?” That answer will vary from person to person, as well as the specific links to their overall health. The National Sleep Foundation notes that on average, adults should ideally receive between seven and nine hours of total sleep every night – but that may vary individually. Quality counts, too. Poor sleep – struggling to fall asleep, or waking up throughout the night, is not good for your health.
Newborns might require 16 to 18 hours of sleep each day. Teens may require nine to 10 total hours per day, while adults need at least seven to eight hours of sleep each day. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services notes that school-aged children should sleep between nine and 12 hours each night, while preschoolers should sleep for 10 to 13 hours each day (including naps.)
Many experts agree, though, that “sleeping fewer than about eight hours per night on a regular basis seems to increase the risk of developing a number of medical conditions,” according to Harvard Medical School. Even “reducing sleep by just two or three hours per night” can have devastating effects on your health.
For example, people who sleep fewer than 6 hours total per night are “much more likely” to carry extra weight. This can start in childhood. According to the university, babies who are “short sleepers” are more likely to develop obesity compared to babies who achieve adequate amounts of sleep. Accumulated sleep loss can have serious effects during childhood development.
The AARP reports that people who regularly don’t get enough sleep – especially deep sleep – run a higher risk factor for “dementia, depression, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, fall-related injuries, and cancer.” Poor sleep quality can also contribute to these potential health risks. Remember, it’s not just the quantity of sleep, but the quality.
Tracking Your Sleep
If you’re not sure how much sleep you’re getting each night, try tracking your sleep. You can get a rough estimate by noting what time you go to bed in the evening and what time you wake up in the morning. Track how long you think it might be taking you to fall asleep, or how often you wake up throughout the night. You can track your sleep using a health app, or simply with a notebook and pen.
Once you have a general sense of how many hours of sleep you’re receiving each night, you can adjust your bedtime accordingly. Other factors, such as caffeine intake or exercise habits, may need to be adjusted to help you achieve the appropriate amount of sleep. By tracking sleep loss, you’ll have a better sense of the level of sleep deprivation in your daily schedule. From there, you can begin to build sleep back into your schedule.
Sleep Health: An Overview
The National Sleep Foundation describes sleep as a “complex biological process.” As your body cycles through the five stages of sleep, it takes care of different processes to help you feel healthy the next day. For example, certain phases of sleep help you feel “rested and energetic.” Other phases of sleep help you “learn information, get insight, and form memories.”
Your heart and vascular system get a rest during other sleep phases. During other healthy phases of sleep, your body works to release growth hormones. These hormones help children grow; among adults, growth hormone “boosts muscle mass and the repair of cells and tissues.” Certain sleep phases are associated with the release of sex hormones, “which contributes to puberty and fertility.”
Sleep and Diabetes
Studies have shown unfortunate connections between adequate sleep and the development of diabetes. Harvard Medical School reports that people who sleep “fewer than five hours per night” had a “greatly increased risk” of developing type 2 diabetes. The good news is that some studies demonstrate that improving your sleep duration can “positively influence” blood sugar, reducing the effects of type 2 diabetes.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that it’s easier for people to “stay at a healthy weight” when they’ve had enough sleep. Mayo Clinic notes that because hormones are regulated when you’re sleeping, not getting enough sleep can increase feelings of hunger and decrease satiety.
Poor sleep habits can have an overall negative effect on your appetite and eating habits. Because appropriate amounts of food and water significantly contribute to your mood and function on a daily basis, anything that offsets that delicate balance can have larger health repercussions.
Sleep and Cardiovascular disease
Problems with cardiovascular disease and hypertension also relate to sleep health. Achieving six to seven hours of sleep per night (instead of the recommended eight hours) has been associated with a “greatly increased risk” for coronary artery calcification – compromising heart rate and serving as a potential indicator for heart attacks or deaths related to heart disease, according to Harvard Medical University.
Other sleep conditions, including Obstructive Sleep Apnea, have been related to increased risks for cardiovascular disease, including “hypertension, stroke, coronary heart disease, and irregular heartbeat.” For improved cardiovascular health, aim for substantial amounts of deep sleep each night.
Sleep and Immune Function
Harvard Medical University reports that when you miss out on sleep, this can increase levels of “inflammatory mediators, resulting in infection (including the common cold.) In fact, people who achieved fewer than seven total hours of sleep per night were “about three times more likely” to develop cold symptoms compared to individuals who slept at least eight hours each night. The National Sleep Foundation reports that during sleep, your body works to create more cytokines, which are “hormones that help the immune system fight various infections.” Poor sleep habits can compromise the robustness and vitality of your immune system.
Sleep and Brain Health
Getting enough deep sleep also impacts your brain health, according to the AARP. The organization reported that sleep positively impacts cognitive function, recommending that sleeping for “seven to eight hours each day is related to better brain and physical health in older people.” The AARP states that for most people, “regular duration and timing of sleep” are key factors in promoting good brain health.
Losing out on sleep can “impair attention, memory and executive function, and increase the frequency of cognitive complaints” among individuals who are middle-aged. Furthermore, appropriate amounts of sleep may “delay or reverse cognitive aging.”
Generally speaking, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, adequate sleep can help you “make good decisions and avoid injuries.” The National Institutes of Health notes that getting enough sleep “helps you think more clearly, have quicker reflexes and focus better.” Why is this?
According to the NIH, that’s because “loss of sleep impairs your higher levels of reasoning, problem-solving, and attention to detail.” Poor or interrupted sleep (as well as insufficient sleep) makes it harder for you to think critically and problem solve.
Sleep and Mood
Not getting enough sleep can have negative effects on your emotional health, according to the National Sleep Foundation. If you don’t get enough sleep, or suffer from poor sleep, you are more susceptible to irritability, “problems with relationships, especially for children and teenagers,” depression, and anxiety.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states that getting enough sleep can “reduce stress and improve your mood,” as well as helping you to get along better with people. Mayo Clinic notes that not enough sleep “negatively affects your mood and temperament.” This can lead to you feeling “cranky and short-tempered.”
Sleep deprivation can also magnify the effects of alcohol. When you’re short on deep sleep (or any kind of sleep, for that matter) your typical alcohol tolerance is skewed. That can increase the risk factor for accidental overindulging, putting everyone’s safety at risk.
What Happens When You Sleep?
Your body is hard at work when you’re deep in sleep. Harvard Medical School reports that when you’re sleeping, your body’s cells and tissues are recovering from the damage they sustain during the day. Harvard Medical School reports that “tissue repair, muscle growth, and protein synthesis” occur “almost exclusively” when you’re sleeping.
Adequate sleep also impacts hormones associated with processes like “metabolism, appetite regulation, and stress response.” Poor sleep quality (or insufficient sleep) interrupts each of these processes, having an overall negative impact on your health.
Health in the Workplace
Adequate sleep doesn’t just affect your short-term and long-term health, but even minute measurements such as your health in the workplace. Harvard Medical School states that missing sleep can impact your health in ways that causes problems for your “time and productivity” in the office. For a healthier work life, it pays to invest in deep sleep. Otherwise, the accumulative effects of nightly sleeplessness, or poor-quality sleep, will begin to show strain in your workplace performance.
When possible, reduce sleep disturbances in your home environment in order to achieve better performance – and better overall health – in your professional life.
Signs That You’re Skimping on Sleep
RESMED notes that your body can give signals when it is not receiving enough sleep, or suffering from poor sleep quality. For example, you may feel “drowsy, irritable, or sometimes depressed.” You may struggle “to take in new information at work, remembering things or making decisions.” And you may also crave “more unhealthy foods,” leading to weight gain. When these symptoms occur, it places “tremendous strain on your nervous system, body, and overall health.”
It’s worth the time and energy to prioritize a daily schedule that includes deep sleep. Sleep loss may seem like a nuisance, but its effects on your health are far-reaching. When you identify sleep disturbances, take care to eliminate them to increase the chances of improved sleep.