Hitting the hay, shut-eye, 40 winks, catching z’s, counting sheep, dead to the world, in the arms of Morpheus, zonking out: whatever you want to call it, we all need sleep. The average person requires around 7 hours of sleep per night – but the problem is many of us around the world aren’t getting that amount. Let’s delve into why sleep is important to our health, and how to get more sleep.
Why Sleep Is Important
Sleep is an important time in our day, if not the most important. It’s when our body can rest and recover from the day’s events, both on a mental and physical level. If our sleep is compromised we may find it challenging to function to our full potential during the day. We’ve all likely experienced some of the negative effects of sleep deprivation and they are not fun. The health benefits of slumber include:
- Cell regeneration
- Wound healing
- Brain regeneration
- Immune support
- Hormonal balance
- Memory processing
New Discovery: The Glymphatic System
The role of the glymphatic system is a new discovery in the world of slumber. The glymphatic system helps to clear waste from the brain and central nervous system, as well as circulate important nutrients like neurotransmitters, glucose, fats and amino acids throughout the brain. It’s essentially the lymphatic system of the brain (our brains do not have lymph nodes or vessels as there are in most other parts of the body).
An effective, functional glymphatic system works to keep the brain and nervous system healthy, prevent traumatic brain injuries and strokes, as well as hinder neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s that can result from a build-up from amyloid plaque in the brain. Sounds like a handy system to keep humming, right?
The glymphatic system comes with a catch: scientists discovered that it is turned on only when we sleep; it’s not active when we’re awake. Studies indicate that only one night of sleep deprivation can hamper waste removal and cause a build up of amyloid plaque.
Health Risks of Sleep Deprivation
Aside from the inhibition of the glymphatic system, there are many health risks or challenges associated with sleep deprivation.
Evidence links sleep deprivation to obesity in both adults and children. One study found that women who slept at least 7 hours per night had more success with weight loss than those who did not. What’s more, sleep loss boosts the production of an appetite-inducing hormone called ghrelin and reduces the appetite-suppressing hormone leptin – this may induce overating. We are also more likely to choose junk foods over healthy ones when we haven’t slept well.
Inflammation and Compromised Immunity
Lack of sleep can create pro-inflammatory compounds in the body and compromise our immune system. In one study of identical twins, researchers found that the blood samples of the sleep-deprived twin showed a lowered immunity compared to the twin who slept. Insomnia can lead to activation of the pro-inflammatory cytokines, leaving us more susceptible to infections.
On the flip side, quality sleep allows us to develop a long-term ‘memory’ of pathogens, which helps our immune system recognize and respond to infections more quickly.
Ineffectiveness of Vaccines
If you receive vaccinations, insomnia may affect their efficacy. Studies have found sleeplessness reduces the effectiveness of the flu vaccine and Hepatitis B vaccine, leading study participants to develop fewer antibodies that can protect them from these infections. Another study found that a good night of slumber can boost our response to the Hepatitis A vaccine.
An imbalance of blood sugar levels can lead to food cravings, weight gain, irritability, hormone disruption, inflammation, poor sleep and diabetes. Continual sleep deprivation is associated with a decrease in insulin sensitivity and has been found to increase the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.
Sleep debt is connected to a higher risk of cardiovascular diseases, such as hypertension, coronary heart disease and stroke.
Poor Memory and Cognition
A good night of slumber lowers the risk of cognitive decline and brain aging.
Overall Mortality Risk
A meta-analysis of 27 samples that studied more than 1 million participants found that both too little and too much sleep increased the overall risk of death.
How to Get More Sleep
Sleep cannot be a process we postpone thinking about until we decide to go to bed. In order to sleep well, it’s best to begin cultivating positive sleep hygiene habits throughout the day. Try these tips to help facilitate healthy slumber.
If you’re an auditory learner, you can also listen to our podcast episode How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep that discusses many of these tactics (and has a free download of bedtime elixir recipes).
This includes coffee, caffeinated tea, white refined sugar and cigarettes. These all contain chemicals that stimulate our sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system typically jumps into action when we are in danger, also known as “fight or flight” mode. If our body thinks we are in danger the last act it will let us do is sleep. Therefore, stimulants should be reserved to the first half of the day or optimally avoided altogether.
Enjoy More Sunshine
We are meant to wake and sleep with the patterns of the sun. Sun exposure can help to regulate our circadian rhythm and enhances the quality of sleep. This is especially true in older adults and seniors, who often have problems sleeping.
Sunlight, especially first thing in the morning, helps us produce melatonin more quickly at night to help us fall asleep faster. Sun exposure triggers serotonin too, a neurotransmitter associated with sleep, mood and anxiety, and the precursor to melatonin. (You can discover more about surprising health benefits of sunshine here).
Turn off Devices An Hour Before Bed and Turn Down the Lights
In the evening when the sun goes down, the brain converts serotonin (a daytime brain chemical) into melatonin (a night-time brain chemical), which helps us stay asleep. When we are exposed to bright lights from a computer, the television, or lights themselves, we fool the brain into thinking its still daytime and this disrupts our circadian rhythm.
Sleep in a Cool Room
This may seem counter intuitive, as you might think being warm and cozy would facilitate sleep. However, a cooler body temperature is important as it helps us fall asleep more quickly and offers us better quality of sleep.
Create a Consistent Bedtime
Remember when you used to have a bedtime as a child? There was good reason for this. Between about 10:30pm and 2:00am our physical body repairs. Between 2:00am and 6:00am it’s our brain’s turn to rejuvenate. If we go to bed at 12:00am for example, we miss out on valuable physical repair time. If we wake up too early, we don’t have the opportunity for a full brain recovery.
Practice Relaxing Bedtime Rituals
This might be meditation, reading, aromatherapy, massage, taking a bath, restorative/nighttime yoga, listening to music, colouring or whatever else is going to make you feel relaxed.
Try incorporating these tips into your regular routine and you just mind find you fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow!