Surprising facts about the importance of sleep

The importance of sleep

Sleep is vital for a person’s overall health and well-being.  The average human being sleeps for up to one third of their life.  It is hard to overestimate the importance of sleep.  Our body needs rest just as it needs food and exercise.

There are a number of reasons why sleep is so important.  Read on to find out about some of the problems associated with not getting adequate sleep.

How much sleep does a person need?

Sleep requirements vary drastically from person to person.  The amount of sleep a person needs depends on their age, lifestyle and body.  Thanks to artificial lighting, there is no need to go to bed when the sun sets.  This is why modern humans do not sleep as much as their ancestors did. Today, on average, a person sleeps for about 7 hours. However, just a hundred years ago, people slept for at least 9 hours a night.

As you can see in the chart below, it is recommended that the average adult get between 7-9 hours sleep per day. Children need more sleep because they are growing.

Recommended sleep

It is valuable to keep in mind that length of sleep is only part of the story.  For good quality sleep – continuity and depth of sleep also need to be considered.

three elements of good sleep

What happens when we sleep?

It’s easy to think about sleep as a time when your body and mind are inactive. The reality is, your brain is hard at work overseeing a wide variety of biological upkeep and preparation for the next day.

Sleep is a complex process that takes place in the brain and is influenced by a host of internal and external factors.  The whole sleep process can be divided into four sections:

1. Preparations for sleep
When a person is yawning and has heavy eyelids, then it is time to prepare for bed.  During this stage it is best to do calm, relaxing activities.  It is also best to avoid electronic devices as much as possible.

2. Falling asleep
As people fall asleep they slowly become less aware of their environment. During this time your eyes will droop shut.  As we fall asleep, our body temperature decreases. The body also produces fluid, which evaporates on the skin. It is best if your pyjamas and bedding are breathable to allow for air flow to your body.

3. Sleep
Sleep itself consists of several cycles.  Usually a person will go through about 5 cycles a night.  Each cycle involves stages.  Find out more about sleep cycles and stages in our quick guide to sleep cycles.  Each cycle is followed by an intermediate stage, during which we wake up for a moment.  This will happen numerous times during the night, and often you will not even be aware that it happened.

4. Waking up
Throughout the night, you are likely to have shorter and shorter phases of deep sleep.  Eventually, the body will be triggered to wake up either naturally or by an external source (like an alarm).  When you wake up, your body temperature rises.

Sleep and weight

Sleep deprived people have a harder time maintaining a healthy weight than others.  Studies have shown that lack of proper sleep disturbs signals from the brain that control appetite regulation.  Sleep deprivation impacts the secretion of the hormone ghrelin. As ghrelin increases hunger, it can lead to an increased consumption of food, contributing to weight gain.  In other words, a lack of sleep causes the body to want to eat more and to snack between meals.

People who are tired are also more likely to reach for high sugar foods. Research has shown that people who are sleep deprived crave sugar and unhealthy food choices in order to get the energy they need to get through the day.

When you get enough sleep, you burn calories while you sleep.  Good quality sleep promotes a healthy metabolism which keeps of the weight.

In addition to this, people are more likely to partake in exercise if they feel rested.  If you are sleep deprived it can be hard to find the energy and motivation to keep up your physical fitness.

Sleep and concentration

Sleep helps us to perform at our best at work and in life.  Various functions of brain are affected if a person isn’t getting enough rest or sleep. Noticeably, lack of sleep can have a negative impact on alertness, concentration, cognition, performance, productivity and logical reasoning.  Poor sleep can hinder other brain functions too, such as learning, problem solving skills and memory.

A study was conducted on medical interns to see whether the brain is affected by lack of sleep. In this survey, it was found that interns on a double shift made 36% more serious medical errors, compared to interns who were allowed proper sleep.  Also, It is more likely that you will have a motor accident or workplace accident if you are tired.

Sleep and mental health

A number of mental illnesses are linked to inadequate sleep.  Studies show that some mental health problems such as depression and anxiety are linked to poor sleep.  Getting a good night’s sleep has also been known to ease the symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Research has found that symptoms of depression can be exacerbated by sleep deprivation.  It is estimated that more than 90% of people living with depression have sleep issues.  People who have Obstructive Sleep Apnea or insomnia have a significantly higher depression rate than other people.  The relationship between sleep and depression is complicated as they are interlinked.  Depression can cause sleep disorders and a lack of a proper sleep can contribute to depression. According to some research, poor sleep quality can be associated with increased risk of suicide.

Good quality sleep sets you up to be in a better mood and have better mental health.  Having a healthy sleep routine can help to ward off mental illness or decrease its severity.

Sleep and physical health

Quality and duration of sleep have a major affect on a person’s health.  It is estimated that 90% of people suffering from insomnia have other health problems.  Long term sleep deprivation puts a person at a risk of serious lifestyle diseases such as heart attack, stroke, diabetes and high blood pressure.

According to studies, sleeping for less than 7-8 hours a day on a regular basis can increase the risk of heart attack or stroke.  In one study by the National Sleep Foundation, people who didn’t get the recommended amount of sleep were twice as likely to develop cardio-vascular problems.

Lack of sleep increases blood sugar levels and has been labeled as a cause of prediabetes in otherwise healthy adults.  This means that people who are suffering from sleep deprivation are at a higher risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes.

Furthermore, getting at least eight hours of sleep everyday can help improve your immune system.  Sleep is one of your body’s ways of warding off infection.  If you don’t get enough sleep, your immune system is weaker, making you more susceptible to illness.  Studies have shown that a person who is unable to get quality sleep is more susceptible to illness.

Lack of sleep can cause inflammation that can lead to cell damage.  In one study, it was shown that sleep-deprived people have an increased risk of conditions involving an inflammatory issue.

Sleep and relationships

Sleep, or lack thereof, affects a person’s mood and their ability to interact empathetically with others.  This means that sleep deprivation can impact your relationships and social life.

According to research, lack of sleep disables the ability to recognise expressions of happiness, sadness or anger and process other emotional information.  This means that you cannot understand other people as well, and are less likely to interact in an appropriate or helpful manner.

You are also less likely to have a good sense of humor when you are deprived of healthy sleep.  This could inhibit communication in your relationships and cause conflict.

It has also been proven that less sleep makes a person irritable and less friendly.  The amygdala, the part of our brain that controls feeling, does not function properly under conditions such as sleep deprivation.  But, we don’t need scientific studies to tell us that lack of sleep makes us moody and less patient.  You just need one night of poor sleep to experience these effects for yourself.

Tiredness also means that you may not have the energy or motivation to go out and take part in activities or social events.  So to perform at your best, socially, you need to be well rested.

Sleep and beauty

When you’re not getting enough rest, your body tries to compensate in different ways, and draws nutrients away from the surface to help your vital internal organs.  The effects of this are visible on your skin.  Sleep deprivation causes skin to look dull, dry and wrinkled, and noticeable dark circles start to appear under the eyes.

Lack of sleep can impact hair and nails in a similar way.  You may notice your hair and nails get dull and brittle after long term sleep deprivation.

Sleep is essential for all the cells in your body.  It’s not called beauty sleep for nothing!

Tips for sleeping well

It is important to relax before going to bed so that sleep comes more easily.  Consider establishing a regular sleep routine and try to go to bed at the same time and get up at a fixed time each day.

At nighttime, it is best to stay away from electronic devices to improve your sleep.  The blue light from your smartphone, tablet, TV or computer, can upset your circadian rhythm by confusing your brain into thinking it should be awake. If you can, make the bedroom a tech-free zone.  Experts suggest staying away from screens for an hour before bed, but if half an hour suits you better then do that.  Any amount of time away from the devices is better than none.  You can also try turning the brightness down on your screens, or using a ‘night mode’ feature, if your device has one.

Finally, breathe deeply and slowly when you get into bed to signal to your body that it is time to slow down. There are apps that can help you with this if you wish.  Deep, slow breathing should have a calming effect on your mind and body.  It also gives your mind something to focus on.

Here are some more top tips for better sleep:

Sleep tips

In conclusion, the importance of sleep on a person’s mental and physical well-being cannot be overemphasised.  According to Raymonde Jean, an Associate Professor in Sleep Medicine, “If you sleep better, you can certainly live better. It’s pretty clear.”

Please note:  This article is not to be used as medical advice.  Always speak to a medical professional before using sleep treatments to make sure they are right for you.  

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