Learn how a better night's sleep can improve your health.

We’ve all been told that eight hours of sleep is what you need for a healthy lifestyle. My mom said it to me in high school, every night I stayed up writing papers. Now I say it to myself whenever I stay up binge-watching Netflix every so often. We try our best to get by—eight hours turns into seven, seven into six. Before we know it, we’re relying on cups of coffee and green tea to get us through the day without yawning every five minutes. The truth is, there is more to a good night’s sleep than just feeling energized throughout the day. Good sleep can affect our health in many ways, and even help reduce the risk of chronic illnesses. Below are eight sleep facts you need to know.

1. Sleeping reduces stress

Stress and sleep have a two-way relationship. While getting a good night’s rest can help reduce stress, high levels of stress make sleeping more difficult, even leading to sleep disorders like insomnia—the chronic inability to sleep through the night. According to Dr. Neil Kavey, director of Sleep Disorder Center at Columbia University, stress also causes hyperarousal, which upsets the balance between sleep and wakefulness [1]. Dr. Kavey recommends spending some time winding down, giving yourself a period of time to relax before your sleep system takes over. Stop all work and phone calls two hours before bed. About an hour before bed, turn off the TV and listen to music or read.

2. Sleeping helps weight balance

Several studies have found connections between insufficient sleep and weight gain. During sleep, our bodies secrete hormones that help control energy metabolism, appetite, and glucose processing. Sleep deprivation messes up the balance of these and other hormones. Insufficient sleep is also associated with lower levels of leptin, a hormone that alerts the brain that it has enough food, as well as higher levels of ghrelin, a biochemical that stimulates appetite. Kristen Knutson, an associate professor at Northwestern School of Medicine, insists that future research should determine whether efforts to improve sleep can also help prevent the development of obesity, among other diseases [2]. When you don’t get enough sleep, you may be more likely to eat sweets to satisfy a craving for a quick energy boost.

3. Sleeping decreases risk of diabetes

If good sleep can help reduce weight gain and metabolic imbalance, it may not come as a surprise that it can also reduce the risk of becoming diabetic. Sleep loss can result in insulin resistance, one of the main precursors of diabetes. Insulin helps your body use glucose as energy, so low insulin levels result in high blood sugar, which can harm your kidneys, eyes, nerves, and heart. Registered Dietitian Lynn Maarouf has studied the relationship between sleeplessness and diabetes [3]. In order to avoid the cycle between lack of sleep and spiking your blood sugar, she recommends eating properly throughout the day to keep blood sugar levels under control and getting a good night’s sleep!

4. Sleeping improves heart health

There are many factors that can help keep your heart happy and one of them is sleep. Many studies have found that sleep deprivation can increase the risk of heart disease and cause high blood pressure, putting your body in a tense, unhealthy state. Dr. Gina Lundberg, clinical director of Emory Women’s Heart Center, has found that people who lack sleep have slower metabolisms, making them more susceptible to heart disease [4]. Lundberg also points out that a good night’s sleep does not necessarily mean more hours. When we are young, we need more than seven hours of sleep per night, but as we grow older, we may need less. Studies have found that most people need six to eight hours of sleep each day, but too little or too much can increase the risk of cardiovascular problems. The trick is to find the perfect balance for your body!

5. Sleeping promotes mental wellness

It’s safe to assume that we’ve all felt a little less like ourselves after a poor night’s sleep. Lack of rest and energy has been found to negatively impact your mood and mental state. The relationship between poor sleep and depressive disorders is a complex, two-way street; depression may cause sleep problems and sleep problems may contribute to depression. While having a sleep disorder does not necessarily cause depression, it can be a key contributing factor. Researchers suggest that the risk of developing depression is highest among people with both sleep onset and sleep maintenance insomnia [5]. If you find yourself feeling depressed for long periods of time, check your sleep routine and make sure you are getting a full night’s rest!

6. Sleeping boosts your immune system

Lack of sleep can also affect your immune system, making it easier for you to fall victim during flu season. Studies have shown that people who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a common virus. According to Dr. Eric Olson, poor sleep can also affect how fast you recover if you do get sick [6]. During sleep, your immune system releases proteins called cytokines, some of which help promote sleep. Cytokines need to increase when you have an infection or inflammation, or when you’re under stress. Sleep deprivation decreases the production of these protective proteins, among other infection-fighting antibodies, making it more difficult for you to recover.

7. Sleeping affects inflammation levels

It is important to keep in mind that a healthy amount of sleep does not necessarily mean more hours. In fact, researchers have found that both too much sleep and too little sleep contribute to increased levels of inflammation in our bodies [7]. Inflammation is a reaction in your body that aims to protect you from infection or other viruses. Natural levels of inflammation are good, but too much inflammation can lead to chronic diseases such as asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and even certain types of cancer. A balanced amount of sleep helps keep your body’s defenses in check!

8. Sleeping lowers your risk of Alzheimer’s disease

A good night’s sleep can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. In a new case study, researchers found that sleep deprivation led to an increase in beta-amyloid, a protein in the brain associated with impaired brain function and Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Ehsan Shokri-Kojori, the lead author in the study from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), scanned the brains of 20 healthy participants after getting a full night’s rest and after a night of sleep deprivation [8]. She found that beta-amyloid increased 5% in participants’ brains after losing sleep. A build-up of this protein can be detrimental to brain health and could make you more susceptible to early onset Alzheimer’s disease.  

A good amount of sleep is necessary for maintaining a healthy mental and physical state. Your sleep routine can affect the way you think, behave, and feel, so make sure you listen to your body. While professionals recommend seven or eight hours of sleep for a normal adult, find what works best for you! Try exercising in the evening or reading a good book right before bed, and let go of any stressors as you relax your body and ease your mind before falling asleep.

References:

  1. Kavey, Neil. “Stress and Insomnia.” National Sleep Foundation, 2001, sleepfoundation.org/ask-the-expert/stress-and-insomnia/page/0/1.
  2. Wiley-Blackwell. “Lack of sleep is linked to obesity, new evidence shows.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 17 April 2012. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/04/120417080350.htm
  3. Mann, D. “Coping with excessive sleeplessness: the sleep-diabetes connection.” Web MD, 2014. www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/excessive-sleepiness-10/diabetes-lack-of-sleep.
  4. “Sleep & Heart Disease.” Go Red for Women, American Heart Organization, www.goredforwomen.org/live-healthy/first-steps-to-prevent-heart-disease-and-be-heart-healthy/sleep-heart-disease/.
  5. Taylor, Daniel J. et al. “Epidemiology of insomnia, depression, and anxiety.” Sleep 28 11 (2005): 1457-64.
  6. Olson, Eric J. “Lack of sleep: Can it make you sick?” Mayo Clinic. www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/insomnia/expert-answers/lack-of-sleep/faq-20057757.
  7. Bushak, Lecia. “Sleep Right: Too Little Or Too Much Increases Low-Grade Inflammation, Risk Of Depression And Diabetes.” , Medical Daily, 16 Sept. 2015, www.medicaldaily.com/sleep-right-too-little-or-too-much-increases-low-grade-inflammation-risk-depression-352742.
  8. “Sleep deprivation increases Alzheimer’s protein.” National Institute of Healh, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 24 Apr. 2018, www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/sleep-deprivation-increases-alzheimers-protein.