Why Sleep is so Important to Your Health
While nutrition and exercise are timed-honored bookends of health and healing, the importance of sleep can’t be overstated. In fact, in recent decades, science has uncovered several undeniable connections between sleep and health. Simply put, healthy sleep has healing properties, whereas poor quantity or quality of sleep can wreak havoc with your health.
Poor or inadequate sleep increases your risk for increased blood pressure, elevated blood sugar, weight gain, and system-wide inflammation, key risk factors for cardiovascular disease. The increased risk from inadequate sleep occurs regardless of age, tobacco use, or lack of exercise.
Sleep loss disrupts the body’s natural blood sugar control, which can lead to type 2 diabetes and worsen existing diabetes. In a Catch-22 situation, diabetes can cause poor sleep due to dramatic swings in blood sugar levels, peripheral neuropathy (weakness, numbness and pain from nerve damage in the hands and feet), restless legs syndrome, stress or anxiety.
Inadequate sleep disrupts the balance of key hormones (ghrelin, leptin) that are involved in regulating your appetite. When these hormones are thrown off balance because of poor sleep, it can lead to overeating and eventually weight gain.
The Immune System
Research shows that inadequate or low quality sleep, results increases inflammation in the body, which is a risk factor for several diseases, including cardiovascular disease and cancer. Both chronic illnesses and disease progression have been linked to increased inflammation. On the other hand, sleep has been shown to reduce inflammation and the illnesses associated with it.
Simply put, when you’re in pain, it’s difficult to get to sleep and stay asleep. The reverse is also true—poor sleep increases pain. Acknowledging and treating one, can help the other and promote health and well-being.
Of the many roles sleep plays in good health, one that’s sometimes overlooked is its role in memory and the natural healing of your brain. The lymphatic system in the brain is active during sleep—more so than when you’re awake—working to clear toxic molecules, such as beta-amyloid protein, a compound associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
Mental and Emotional Well-being
There is a significant link between sleep and mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. Individuals with poor sleep are more likely to experience mental illness, especially depression, and those with mental illness are likely to have poor sleep. Sleep is crucial for the management of mental health and to reduce the risk of relapse in depression, anxiety and bipolar illness.
Do you need help with sleep? If you experience any of the following, the quality or quantity of your sleep may need to be improved.
- Falling asleep if reading quietly in the afternoon
- “Drifting off” at afternoon meetings
- Sleeping on daytime flights
- Falling asleep watching TV in the early evening
- “Dozing off” when you are a passenger in a car for over an hour without a break
Steps to Take for Healthy Sleep
First and foremost, healthy sleep requires both adequate quantity and quality. Sleep should be as much a priority in your life as a healthy diet and staying active. Here are some steps you can take to to improve your health through better sleep.
- Your daytime activities and habits impact your ability to sleep. Routine exercise and good nutrition set the stage for healthy sleep. But avoid activity close to bedtime.
- Limit caffeine in the afternoon and alcohol close to bedtime. Either one can negatively impact sleep, even if you easily fall asleep.
- Avoid computers, cell phones and television within 2 to 3 hours of bedtime.
- Take a warm shower or soak in a hot bath before you call it a night.
- For most adults, 7 to 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep in a dark, quiet room is best. Any fewer hours could be affecting your health.
If sleep remains elusive, seek the advice of a board-certified sleep specialist. Over-the-counter therapies or prescription medications, under the guidance of a health care provider, may be reasonable for the short term and in some cases, for a longer period of time.