The benefits of good, deep adequate sleep cannot be underestimated for wellbeing, both physical and mental. A good night’s sleep is just as important as eating healthily and exercising regularly. Unfortunately, modern living interferes with our natural sleep patterns. People have less sleep now than they did in the past, and the quality of that sleep has declined as well.
Eleven reasons why good sleep is important
1. Poor sleep is linked to higher body weight
People who don’t get enough sleep tend to be significantly overweight compared to those who get adequate sleep (1, 2). In fact, short sleep duration is one of the strongest risk factors for obesity. In one extensive review study, children and adults with short sleep duration were 89% and 55% more likely to develop obesity, respectively. The effect of sleep on weight gain is caused by numerous factors, including hormones and motivation to exercise. If you’re trying to lose weight, getting good quality sleep is vital.
2. Good sleepers tend to eat fewer calories
Sleep deprivation disrupts the daily fluctuations in appetite hormones (2, 3). This includes higher levels of ghrelin, the hormone that stimulates appetite, and reduced levels of leptin, the hormone that suppresses appetite (4).
3. Good sleep can improve concentration and productivity
Sleep is important for various aspects of brain function, including cognition, concentration, productivity, and performance (5). All are negatively affected by sleep deprivation. A study on medical interns is a good example. Interns on a traditional schedule with extended work hours of more than 24 hours made 36% more serious medical errors than interns on a schedule that allowed more sleep. Another study found that short sleep can adversely affect some aspects of brain function similar to alcohol intoxication. On the other hand, good sleep has been shown (here, here and here) to improve problem-solving skills and enhance memory performance of both children and adults.
4. Good sleep can enhance athletic performance
In a study of basketball players, longer sleep was shown to significantly improve speed, accuracy, reaction times, and mental wellbeing. Less sleep duration has also been associated with poor exercise performance and functional limitation in older women. A study in more than 2,800 women found that poor sleep was linked to slower walking, lower grip strength, and greater difficulty performing independent activities.
5. Poor sleepers have a greater risk of heart disease and stroke
Sleep quality and duration can have a major effect on many health risk factors. These are the factors believed to drive chronic diseases, including heart disease. A review of 15 studies found that people who don’t get enough sleep are at far greater risk of heart disease or stroke than those who sleep 7–8 hours per night.
6. Sleep affects glucose metabolism and the risk of type 2 diabetes
Restricting sleep affects blood sugar and reduces insulin sensitivity (5, 6). In a study of healthy young men whose sleep was restricted to four hours per night for six nights in a row all showed symptoms of pre-diabetes. These symptoms resolved after a week of increased sleep duration. Those sleeping fewer than six hours a night have repeatedly been shown (here and here) to be at an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
7. Poor sleep is linked to depression
It’s been estimated that 90% of people with depression complain about sleep quality. Poor sleep is even associated with an increased risk of death by suicide (7). Those with sleeping disorders such as insomnia or obstructive sleep apnea also report significantly higher rates of depression than those without (8).
8. Sleep improves immune function
Even a small loss of sleep can impair immune function (9). One large two-week study monitored the progression of the common cold after people were given nasal drops with the cold virus. Those who slept fewer than seven hours were almost three times more likely to develop a cold than those who slept eight hours or more. If you often get colds, getting at least 8 hours of sleep per night would be very helpful.
9. Poor sleep is linked to increased inflammation
Sleep loss can activate undesirable markers of inflammation and cell damage. Poor sleep has been strongly linked (here and here) to long-term inflammation of the digestive tract, in disorders known as inflammatory bowel disease. One study observed that sleep-deprived people with Crohn’s disease were twice as likely to relapse as patients who slept well.
10. Sleep affects emotions and social interactions
Sleep loss reduces your ability to interact socially. Several studies (here and here) confirmed this using emotional facial recognition tests. One study found that people who hadn’t slept had a reduced ability to recognise expressions of anger and happiness. Poor sleep affects your ability to recognise important social cues and process emotional information.
11. A lack of sleep may be lethal
A study of fruit flies suggests the fundamental effects of sleep deprivation start outside the brain. Publishing in the journal Cell, assistant professor of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, Dragana Rogula, and her colleagues provide evidence that sleeplessness causes lethal changes to occur not in the brain but in the gut. They argue one very fundamental job of sleep — perhaps underlying a network of other effects — is to regulate the ancient biochemical process of oxidation, by which individual electrons are snapped on and off molecules to serve everything from respiration to metabolism. Sleep, they imply, is not solely the province of neuroscience, but something more deeply threaded into the biochemistry that knits together the animal kingdom.
Five tips for a better night's sleep
1. Fresh air is vital while you sleep
Keep the window open, even in winter. And keep your bedroom at a temperature similar to the outside temperature, unless it’s a blizzard outside!
2. Keep the room as dark as possible
Pull the curtains or close the blinds, turn off digital devices and all standby lights. And keep the room as quiet as possible: no humming or ticking clocks.
3. Keep your body at least 30cm away from electrical circuitry
This includes powered power boards and devices plugged into wall switches.
4. Don’t let your body get too warm in bed
5. Sleep at regular times
Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning.
Position, position, position!
For most of us, how we sleep is just a matter of habit. Yet, sleep researchers say our sleeping position does matter. Sleeping on your stomach, back or side is not just a matter of personal choice, it can also affect snoring, symptoms of sleep apnea, neck and back pain, and other conditions.
Worst: Sleeping on your stomach
About 7% of adults sleep on their stomachs. It may help reduce the sound of snoring, but in general, it's not recommended.
With your head raised on the pillow, it can be difficult to keep the spine in a neutral position. Sleeping on your stomach puts a strain on the back and neck. With the middle of your body being the heaviest part, it causes the spine to overarch. Over time, this can lead to pain and nerve problems. You may notice numbness or a tingling sensation in the extremities. And, turning your head to one side while lying down can limit blood circulation and reduce the size of the airway.
Bad: Sleeping in the fetal position
Though the body is positioned on the side, the extreme curvature of the spine can cause strain and discomfort in the neck and back. Being tightly curled while sleeping can also limit space for the diaphragm and restrict breathing.
Better: Sleeping on your back
Sleeping with your back flat on the bed enables the spine to stay in a more natural position. This prevents some of the neck, shoulder and back pain experienced with other postures. By elevating the head with a pillow, it can also be helpful in reducing problems associated with acid reflux.
However, this position does exacerbate snoring and obstructive sleep apnea. As the tongue and soft tissues in the throat relax, gravity will pull them down into the airway. If you have been diagnosed with this sleep disorder, talk to your health practitioner about how to best modify your sleeping habits.
If you prefer sleeping on your back but notice it leads to lower back pain, try using a low pillow or neck cushion to support the neck and a medium-sized pillow or large neck roll to prop up the knees. This helps reduce discomfort and strain on the lower back.
Best: Sleeping on your side
The majority of people find this position the most comfortable, and for good reason. With the right mattress, the spine can remain elongated and relatively neutral while on your side. This helps prevent undue neck, back, and shoulder pain.
If you struggle with loud snoring or sleep apnea, sleep on your side. That way the airway is less likely to become restricted even when the body is relaxed. The lateral position is also recommended for people with arthritis, acid reflux, neck and back problems. For pregnant women, sleeping on the left side of the body is best, especially in the second and third trimesters. This is due to enhanced blood flow to the placenta and improved kidney function, which helps decrease swelling in the mother’s legs and feet.
Side sleeping is best when the chest and legs are kept relatively straight, with the spine in an elongated, yet natural alignment. Use a firm, medium-height pillow or ergonomic cushion to support the head and neck. To ease pressure on the lower back, you may be more comfortable with a pillow between your legs. This provides more support for the hips, pelvis and the lower back.
Position, position, position! is adapted from a story by Dr Carl Rosenberg, sleep medicine and neurology specialist
The benefits of a daily nap
Taking a nap in the afternoon has been shown to provide a recharge for the rest of the day. It’s not just for kids in kindergarten. Our lives are often busy and we do push ourselves to finish work that can extend easily into home time, to spend time with friends, or binge TV shows. It’s no surprise we can get sleepy mid-afternoon. “Taking a nap can enhance your sleep cycle, regulate your sympathetic nervous system, help you think and let go of things that are causing you stress, and be used as a circadian marker to help your body understand where you are in the 24-hour cycle. Like meditation, it can be [used] as a quiet time in the middle of a chaotic day,” says sleep specialist W. Chris Winter, M.D., author of The Sleep Solution.
However, a nap is a nap; it’s not sleep. It doesn’t run for hours. If you’re exhausted, by all means, go to bed or have an early night. Here’s how to start napping.
After one day
If the last time you napped was in kindy, your body and mind may not be used to it. So gently does it! “On your first day, you’ll probably have no trouble falling asleep at all, especially if you sleep less than eight hours a night. But once you wake up from napping, you may feel the first benefits — a clear mind and restored alertness,” says John Breese, a sleep science coach and founder of Happy Sleepy Head. However, don’t oversleep. Breese recommends 20–30 minutes. Beyond that on your first day, you may wake up groggy, which defeats the purpose.
After a week
The challenge during the first week is to incorporate a regular nap into your day. It’s not going to be easy to nap if you work in an office or on the factory floor. But for those who can control their workday, you’ll have more freedom to explore options. And your body “may have a hard time getting used to this new activity, too,” says Breese. However, once you settle on the length of the nap and when you can take it and put in place measures to prevent interruptions, you’ll begin to notice the benefits almost straightaway. Concentrating becomes easier, your attention span has increased, your motor skills and accuracy have improved, and your overall mood and energy levels are higher than usual, he says.
After a month
According to Breese, a month of napping can make a huge difference to memory, creativity, emotional control and stamina, which “can help you achieve more in your career and build healthy personal relationships.”
After six months
Now, the long-term benefits kick in. Breese notes one study on Greek adults back in the 1990s found that a short nap during the day reduces the risks from heart disease and regularly getting more rest may increase sex drive. “Overall, napping can help you get on a more consistent schedule, and research finds the consistency to be extremely beneficial for your sleep,” he says.
Adapted from What Happens to Your Body When You Take Naps Every Single Day? by Raven Ishak
Along with nutrition and exercise, good sleep and a nap in the day are important pillars of health. Our physical and mental wellbeing depend on us taking good care of our sleep and rest.
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