As humans, we spend about one-third of our lives sleeping–or, at least, resting. It’s a “given” for many of us, but in reality, 1 in 3 adults doesn’t get enough sleep, with many averaging only 6.8 hours a night.
Understanding What Happens When You Sleep
While scientists are still discovering exactly why sleep is important, there’s no denying that getting enough on a regular basis has a myriad of incredible benefits–and going without can have serious consequences for your health.
Read on to learn why sleep is important, how it benefits your health, and what to do if you’re not getting enough.
Why is Sleep Important?
For children and teens, sleep is crucial for growth and brain development. But it’s equally important for adults.
Every system in the body recalibrates itself during sleep–from brain cells and the nervous system to the immune system, to the heart and digestive system. Without this time of recalibration and repair, cells in the body start to age more quickly and deteriorate, which can lead to infection and chronic disease–not to mention brain fog, mood issues, and other problematic conditions. So getting enough sleep helps prevent all kinds of acute and long-term health issues.
What are the Health Benefits of Sleep?
Sufficient sleep fosters clearer cognition, increased energy, healthier mood and metabolism, and improved immunity–as well as optimal health and overall well-being. It keeps your heart strong, balances hormones, and keeps inflammation to a minimum.
But how do these things actually happen? Here are 6 ways getting enough sleep can help you live a longer, healthier life.
Sleep and Emotional Health
The brain resets itself during sleep, so it makes sense that some of the most common effects of sleep deprivation are mental health issues. While insomnia may not be the only trigger for conditions like depression or anxiety, insufficient rest makes it harder to process emotions and life situations in a healthy, constructive way and can exacerbate or increase your risk of developing a mood disorder.
You might’ve noticed that when you’re sleep-deprived, you feel more irritable, anxious, or sensitive to stress. This may be because getting proper sleep balances hormone levels, which impacts your mood. Furthermore, when you’re sleep-deprived, you’re less likely to be physically active and engage in nourishing habits–such as social activities–which can further trigger mood disorders. Depression is a very common side effect of insomnia–although insomnia is also a common side effect of depression; so it’s not always clear which symptom comes first.
Lack of sleep also increases the production of cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone. Cortisol is a key component of the body’s alarm system–the fight or flight response–so too much of this hormone can make you feel more stressed, anxious, irritable, and ill-equipped to deal with life’s challenges.
One study of 10,000 people indicated that sleep deprivation makes you five times more likely to develop depression, anxiety, or a panic disorder. So getting proper sleep is essential for resetting your mood, regulating your hormones, and feeling more emotionally balanced.
Sleep and Brain Health
In addition to anxiety and stress, you’ve probably noticed forgetfulness, decreased reaction time, and difficulty concentrating after a poor night’s sleep. That’s because after being awake for too long, neurons in the brain start to get fatigued. The brain and body do stay active during sleep, but nerve cells need that time to reset and maintain proper communication with one another. And the impact of this mechanism goes far beyond short-term forgetfulness and lack of focus.
Effects of long-term sleep deprivation include long-term memory and decision-making issues, or even dementia, as well as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. That’s because these degenerative diseases are thought to result from miscommunication and degeneration among brain cells, due to excess toxins.
According to Dr. Valerie Cacho, an integrative sleep medicine doctor and founder of Sleephoria
and SleepLifeMed.com, “If you don’t get enough deep sleep, your lymphatic system–which is a trash collector for your brain–doesn’t work or doesn’t get activated…so your brain doesn’t clean out the toxins throughout the day, and those toxins can build up and have reportedly been associated with developing things like dementia.” In fact, evidence suggests that getting fewer than five hours of sleep per night doubles your chances of developing dementia, possibly even leading to death.
Although, Dr. Cacho cautions that the progression from sleep deprivation to neurodegenerative disease isn’t totally clear-cut. So if you often don’t get enough sleep, don’t assume you’re already doomed to develop Alzheimer’s. Although sleep is “a big piece of the pie,” it’s not the whole story, Dr. Cacho says. Family history, nutrition, and other lifestyle variables factor in. So it’s important to prioritize a variety of healthy habits to reduce your risk.
Sleep, Healthy Weight, and Steadier Blood Sugar
Sleep also helps your body maintain a healthy body mass index (BMI). Research indicates that not getting enough sleep can increase your risk of developing obesity. This is likely because one of the effects of sleep deprivation is an imbalance of two hunger hormones, called ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin makes you feel hungry, while leptin is responsible for making you feel satiated.
When you’re not getting enough sleep, the body overproduces ghrelin and underproduces leptin, leading to increased hunger, slower metabolism, and increased cravings for simple carbohydrates, which can lead to weight gain. Studies conducted on new college students showed that less sleep during their first year of school coincided with significant weight gain.
So weight loss isn’t necessarily a matter of willpower, Dr. Cacho says. Instead, struggling to maintain a healthy weight may be more tied to insufficient sleep. Prioritizing sleep can help you balance your hunger hormones, make healthier food choices naturally, and lose or maintain a healthy BMI. You’ll likely also notice more energy, better focus, and perhaps even healthier skin, due to steadier blood sugar. And long-term, steadier blood sugar lowers your risk of developing diabetes.
One study showed that just one night of poor sleep induced insulin resistance in healthy adults, which can lead to prediabetes and diabetes. During deep sleep, the body’s hormones regulate glucose, which helps balance blood sugar during the day. Without properly regulated glucose, the body can end up with too much blood sugar in the bloodstream, which is a key component of diabetes.
Sleep and Heart Health
Another health benefit of sleep is a lower risk of developing heart disease and hypertension. Studies show that sleep deprivation causes an imbalance in the autonomic nervous system, which plays an important role in regulating blood pressure.
When you don’t get enough sleep, your sympathetic nervous system (which governs the fight or flight response) becomes overactivated, increasing blood pressure and feelings of stress. These symptoms put a heavier load on your heart and arteries, increasing the risk of stroke or heart attack. Furthermore, when you sleep, your blood pressure goes down, giving your arteries and heart a much-needed rest. Chronic sleep deprivation may be why 1 in 3 adults in the U.S. suffers from hypertension, which is one of the best predictors of heart disease.
Studies indicate a direct connection between sleep and the brain chemicals that protect against atherosclerosis–the thickening or hardening of the arteries. Insufficient sleep causes dysregulation of blood cells and cell fragments in bone marrow, which can contribute to inflammation and atherosclerosis, increasing your risk of heart disease. So getting enough sleep is extremely beneficial for heart health.
Sleep and Immunity
Without adequate sleep, your immune system weakens, making you more susceptible to colds, flu, and other infections. This may be because quality sleep strengthens the production of T cells, which fight infection and cause the hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline, and prostaglandins to dip, making other proteins that kill pathogens stronger.
These processes are helpful for more reasons than avoiding an acute infection like a cold or flu. Dr. Cacho says these functions can also mean a lower risk of developing chronic illnesses caused by immune system dysfunction, such as rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, and lupus. “The sleep system and the immune system share similar genes, so an insult to one can affect the other,” she says.
“If you have a lot of pain or have been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, that can also affect the quality of sleep that you get,” Dr. Cacho adds. So prioritizing sufficient sleep helps protect healthy tissue and organs, which can, in turn, improve the quality of your sleep.
Sleep, Digestive Health, and Reduced Inflammation
Another key health benefit of sleep is reduced inflammation. Inflammation is a silent killer that plays a role in essentially all chronic diseases, including heart disease, neurodegenerative disease, and even digestive issues.
When you don’t get enough sleep, the body overproduces inflammatory types of proteins called cytokines, which can lead to inflammatory bowel disease, liver disorders, and certain types of cancer. Furthermore, the brain and gut engage in a necessary feedback loop during sleep that influences cells in the intestines, via the nervous system and hormonal activity. So getting enough sleep helps cells in different areas of the body communicate properly, allowing for healthy digestion, as well as reducing inflammation.
What Should I Do if I Can’t Sleep?
If you’re struggling to get enough sleep night after night, you may worry about its health implications. But that additional stress can make it even harder to sleep.
First and foremost, Dr. Cacho recommends making sleep a priority. To do this, she suggests taking a top-down approach: acknowledging where you are now, examining your lifestyle and why you may not be getting enough sleep, and keeping a sleep diary. “Anytime you’re interested in creating a behavior change, you want to take a look at what you’re currently doing,” she says. “Knowledge is power–your awareness of what your current state is.”
Start by tracking how much sleep you’re getting. How much sleep you need depends on your age and other factors, but for most adults, research suggests 7-9 hours is ideal. From there, Dr. Cacho recommends implementing lifestyle and wellness tools, such as good nutrition, mindfulness, and self-compassion.
Once you start making sleep a priority and experience the benefits first-hand, you’ll naturally want to continue getting enough rest. Like the effects of sleep deprivation, the benefits of getting enough sleep compound over time.
Byline: Carrie Solomon is a freelance health writer, copywriter, and passionate wellness enthusiast. She’s on a mission to help wellness-focused companies educate, engage, and inspire their audiences to make the world a healthier, happier place. Learn more about her at copybycarrie.com or on LinkedIn.
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