Have you recently felt drained, tired, or worn out? It's miserable!
The yawning, the brain fog, and the overall sluggishness can hinder productivity and make activities less enjoyable. Headaches are more frequent, and your irritability increases, which can strain your relationships. Yet it can get even worse. Sleep is vital to our health, and depriving your body of adequate sleep can have devastating health effects.
Our bodies are marvelous contraptions: Multiple systems in constant communication, rapid-fire brain signals controlling everything from digestion to eye movement. It's no surprise that a single issue can send your health off the rails. Being sleep-deprived can have a domino effect on your overall health, both mentally and physically.
Compare this with the contentment of a good night's rest. Folk wisdom has always known that waking up rested puts people in a better mood, and now we have the science that can tell us exactly why.
Misconceptions about sleep are widespread. Since we aren't conscious while we sleep, it's easy to assume that the body "shuts off" during this time, but nothing could be further from the truth. Instead of turning off, our brains go into overdrive, performing a whole host of tasks that our minds cannot complete during waking hours. The rest of our bodies are very active during sleep, as well.
Sleep is the mastermind behind all the body's cellular functions. Studies have even found a link between sleep quality and the regenerative capabilities of stem cells1. Sleep plays a vital role in tissue regeneration. Without proper levels of sleep, the body loses the ability to regenerate bone, cartilage, skin, and other tissues.
Sleep regulates hormone production and gives the body a chance to reset itself. Studies show that sleep increases not only learning retention rates but also buffs our brains up in preparation for the next day's activities2.
You cannot disentangle sleep from overall wellness. Studies have shown that sleep sets the stage for many broader health issues, and a lack of sleep has severe implications for mental and physical health.
Maintaining a healthy weight can sometimes seem like an impossible task. It can feel like all the diet and exercise in the world aren't doing an ounce of good. In some cases, a lack of progress may be attributable to inadequate sleep.
Systematic reviews of sleep deprivation and weight suggest that the less sleep you get, the more likely you are to be overweight or gain weight in the future. This increased probability of weight gain may be because of the role sleep plays in regulating cortisol, a hormone that is known to affect weight3.
Studies have also found that sleep affects insulin tolerance and glucose regulation. So much so that after just one or two weeks of inadequate sleep, a person may show signs of being pre-diabetic. Sleep deprivation also affects the hormones that control hunger and appetite. When you don't sleep well, you will feel hungrier as your body mistakenly tries to compensate for lack of sleep with extra food. Something else to consider is that more hours awake means more opportunities to snack4.
It's hard to find an area of human health that sleep doesn't affect. Heart health may be among the most important and least known. A Swedish study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found some startling implications about lost sleep and heart attacks5.
In the three weekdays following the beginning of daylight savings time (when we lose an hour of sleep), heart attacks increase by up to 24 percent. Conversely, when daylight savings time ends (and we gain an hour of sleep), heart attack rates drop by as much as 21 percent.
These findings suggest that disruptions to our natural sleep rhythms can have devastating effects on cardiovascular health. One main takeaway is that a few extra hours of sleep can help stave off heart attacks.
There is growing evidence to suggest that a chronic lack of sleep may be a contributing factor in the development of Alzheimer's disease.
Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia are some of the most feared degenerative diseases out there. The field of Alzheimer's research has experienced a reset recently, with the realization that Alzheimer's is a slow disease, often developing over the years or even decades. A lot of recent drug trials have been turning up poor results6.
It is now our understanding that one component of Alzheimer's disease and related forms of dementia is the proliferation of several forms of a toxic beta-amyloid protein called "beta-amyloid 42". The buildup of this protein disrupts neurological function, giving way to the devastating effects of Alzheimer's7.
Yet sleep may be the key to postponing or even preventing Alzheimer's. Deep sleep is when your body recharges and refuels. It just so happens that one crucial deep sleep function of the brain is waste disposal. When you enter deep sleep, your glymphatic system gets to work cleansing your mind of excess "sewage," such as beta-amyloid proteins. The implication is simple: miss enough sleep, and your brain gets overrun with the kind of waste that it usually clears out during sleep.
These sorts of effects compound. One restless night turns into a week. Then the stress from work means you're up late every night for a month. Soon it's been years, and you can't remember the last time you got a full night's rest. All the while, damaging toxins are building up in your brain.
The recommended sleep levels vary by age, with infants and small children requiring several more hours per night than older adults. The National Sleep Foundation has broken up sleep requirements by age on this handy chart. For adults, the recommendation varies from 7 to 9 hours per night. However, every individual is different, and there may be factors that require you to get more sleep than the recommended average8.
A good number to start with is 8 hours. Aim to get 8 hours of rest per night and track your sleep to see if that is an adequate amount. Ideally, you should wake up on time without an alarm clock. If you find yourself oversleeping, then you need to increase your sleep hours.
We make this promise a lot. Tonight is the night where you'll finally catch up on the rest you missed over the last few days. Had a hard week? Use the weekend to catch up on sleep.
Yet how well does this work? Can sleep debts be repaid, and if so, how much interest is required?
It turns out that sleep is quite a ruthless lender, and one long snooze fest won't compensate for a week of long nights. Yes, you can catch up on sleep, but it takes days to do it. You may not have realized exactly how much sleep you've lost. If the average American sleeps only 6.5 hours a night, then that's almost an hour each night in lost sleep. In just a few weeks, you will have amassed quite a deficit.
Paying back your sleep debt means going to bed when you're tired and waking up without an alarm. Doing so can easily result in more than 10 hours of sleep a night, but it's well worth it in the end.
We've focused a lot on numbers in this article. For example, 8 hours being the average recommended daily amount of sleep. Yet this tells us nothing of sleep quality.
If you're waking up frequently during the night, tossing and turning, then you're not getting the full benefits of sleep. Your brain and body engage in different cycles as you sleep, depending on how deeply you're sleeping. You've probably heard of R.E.M. sleep. R.E.M. stands for "rapid eye movement" and refers to a period of deep sleep.
During these hours of deep sleep, much of your brain's most essential functions begin. The clearing of toxins and the regeneration of cells, for example, kick into high gear during deeper slumber. However, it can take hours before your body reaches this critical state of sleep. If you wake up during the night, your cycle has been disrupted and may have to start over again.
In other words, if you're not sleeping well, then you're not getting the full benefits of sleep and may even be sleep-deprived. You should take the sleep troubles of this nature into consideration. The fix may be as simple as changing up your evening diet or buying a new mattress. Meditation before bed can be another great way to boost sleep quality.
However, if an underlying medical condition causes your frequent sleep interruptions, then you should discuss potential solutions with your doctor.
You're not alone. Sleep struggles are incredibly prevalent. Many people find that they don't sleep well or cannot fall asleep quickly. Fortunately, there are simple tricks you can try at home to help you get the rest you need
1.) Chill your bedroom
Humans sleep better at slightly cooler temperatures, so turn your thermostat down before you go to bed. The high 60's is an excellent place to start.
2.) Get a new pillow
If your pillow or mattress is old, replacing them may help your body relax more. The positioning of your neck and spine during sleep is critical.
3.) Eat "sleepy" foods
Many foods are high in tryptophan or related "sleepy" ingredients and can help nudge you to sleep faster. Try poultry, fruits, or whole grains. A little nibble of dark chocolate can help, as well9.
4.) Eliminate blue light
According to Harvard Health, blue light can mess with your sleep cycle. Too much exposure to cell phones or computers before bed can trick your brain into thinking it is still daytime. Try turning off all electronics several hours before bed. Many devices also have screen modes that can filter out blue light. Protective computer glasses are also an option if you absolutely can't cut the midnight computer time10.
There's no compensating for lack of sleep. All the vitamins, skin moisturizers, and caffeine you can buy won't be able to give your body the same benefits that good sleep does. Using products like caffeine to compensate for a sleep deprivation kicks the can down the road resulting in a more difficult problem to deal with in the future. When crafting your personal wellness plan, give sleep earnest consideration.
How often do you really get a good night's rest? The answer may surprise you. Many people don't realize just how much sleep they miss out on. Log your sleep during an average week to see where your gaps are and try to adjust your schedule accordingly. Allotting yourself a solid 8 hours every night can help you get healthy and stay healthy.
Remember that you may need some extra sleep for a while to make up for a poor sleep schedule in the past. Don't ignore this basic need. A good night's rest is the best medicine you can get, and sleep deprivation is a dangerous game.
(1) Elkhenany, H, AlOkda, A, El-Badawy, A, El-Badri, N (2018 Dec) Tissue regeneration: Impact of sleep on stem cell regenerative capacity
(2) Wigren HK, Stenberg T (2015) How does sleeping restore our brain
(3) Patel S, Hu F (2008 Mar) Short sleep duration and weight gain: a systematic review
(4) Beccutia G, Pannaina S (2011 July) Sleep and obesity
(5) Janszky I, Ljung R (2008 Oct) Shifts to and from Daylight Saving Time and Incidence of Myocardial Infarction
(6) Powell K, (2019 Oct) Alzheimer’s research reset
(7) National Institute on Aging (2017 May) What Happens to the Brain in Alzheimer's Disease?
(8) National Sleep Foundation (2015 Feb) National Sleep Foundation Recommends New Sleep Times
(9) Cawis J (2016 April) Dark Chocolate May Help You Sleep Better At Night
(10) Harvard Health Letter (2018 Aug) Blue light has a dark side