Sleep is easy to take for granted. In the U.S., more than one-third of adults regularly get less than seven hours of sleep a night. Our work culture of long hours, along with our modern lifestyles, often even celebrates a lack of sleep. As a result, few people think twice about losing a few hours here and there if it means getting more done. After all, any ill effects can feel harmless — and easy to solve with a cup of coffee or two.
But this type of thinking ignores the long-term costs of neglecting sleep. A range of medical conditions, such as diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease, have been linked to a lack of sleep. Recent studies have even found that middle-aged people who get six hours of sleep or less had a 30 percent greater risk of developing dementia. While scientists are still debating the exact connection between sleep and disease, more experts agree on one thing: getting adequate sleep is vital to our health.
What Happens When We Sleep?
Sleep can be divided into two different categories: REM (rapid-eye movement) sleep and non-REM sleep. Over several hours, we cycle repeatedly between these two major phases as we progress through the multiple stages of sleep.
The first three stages are composed of non-REM sleep. The initial stage is the transition from wakefulness into sleep. The second stage is light sleep, or when the mind and body begin to slow down and prepare for the subsequent stages. During the third stage of sleep, the brain starts to produce what are known as delta waves and the body begins to go into deep sleep. Finally, by the fourth stage, REM sleep begins and delta wave activity increases. By this point, brain activity reaches levels that are similar to wakefulness, which is why intense dreams are most often associated with this stage. Breathing and heart rate also increase during REM sleep.
This entire process can repeat itself four or five times over the course of a normal sleep session (seven to eight hours). Although the specific purposes of each stage are still not entirely understood, REM sleep is thought to play a role in cognitive functions associated with learning new material, while non-REM sleep is associated with proper brain function while awake.
How Does Sleep Affect Health?
While it may not look like it’s doing much from the outside, lack of sleep affects nearly every system of the body and causes notable changes to our internal health. Here are some of the most significant ways getting enough sleep benefits us:
Regulates Metabolism and Weight
Metabolism refers to the amount of energy the body requires to maintain itself. During sleep, metabolism lowers by about 15 percent so that the body can repair any damage done during wakeful periods. However, when we do not get enough sleep, the body is less able to properly regulate this cycle of metabolism, leading to hormone imbalances and insulin resistance. Over prolonged periods, this can cause health issues such as weight gain and become a precursor to diabetes.
Helps the Body Recover and Repair
In addition to metabolic regulation, there are a variety of ways sleep promotes healing. A good night’s rest releases hormones that can help reduce inflammation and atherosclerosis (fatty deposits in blood vessels). Sleep also releases enzymes that repair brain cell damage caused by free radicals and clears away a protein called beta-amyloid, which is thought to be a precursor to Alzheimer’s.
Reduces Stress and Improves Cognition
Healthy sleep habits are one of the best ways to manage stress. This is accomplished, in part, by maintaining appropriate cortisol levels, a hormone produced in response to stress that can help control inflammation and aid in the formation of memory. Inadequate sleep can cause cortisol levels to become imbalanced, leading to headaches, high blood pressure, and anxiety, all of which can have unhealthy effects on mental performance.
Boosts Immune System and Cardiovascular Health
Sleep is an essential way the body keeps the immune and cardiovascular systems in check. In addition to lowering blood pressure and heart rate, giving the cardiovascular system time to repair, sleep also promotes the development of T cells, a vital part of the immune system. In contrast, a lack of sleep can make us more susceptible to disease.
How to Ensure You’re Getting Healthy Sleep
Getting a good night’s rest starts with creating a consistent bedtime routine — and sticking to it. Give yourself at least two hours between your last full meal and when you go to bed. This allows you to digest any food and can help you avoid issues like heartburn. You should also steer clear of any caffeine late in the day, which can stimulate your nervous system and keep you from relaxing into sleep.
Try to avoid looking at any electronic screens right before bed. Blue light emits from most screens which can interrupt your circadian rhythm by tricking your body into thinking it is daytime. Instead, read a book and dim the lights at night. If falling asleep is still an issue, eliminate any naps you take in the day so that you are more tired at night. Adding an exercise routine earlier in the day can also help prepare the body for rest at the end of the day. Rigorous exercise such as strength training right before bedtime may impede sleep.
If sleep problems persist, you may want to rule out a possible disorder. For instance, sleep apnea can interrupt sleep by causing inconsistent breathing. As many as 24% of men and 9% of women suffer from this condition, making it one of the most common sleep disorders. Contact a health care provider to explore possible sleep disorders if you have difficulty falling or staying asleep consistently for more than a few weeks.
Sleep is an essential aspect of maintaining good health — but it is also intimately connected to many other aspects of our physical and mental well-being, such as our diet, weight, stress levels, and even our genes. To help you get restful, healthy sleep, the Precision Health Care approach considers all aspects of a healthy lifestyle so that you can feel your best, day and night. Learn more by contacting us for a complimentary meet and greet today.