We all go to sleep at some point during the day. But sometimes it feels as if there aren’t’ enough hours in the day for it as well as other tasks. Long working hours, making meals, children’s homework or a night out with friends land up consuming any spare hours we may have. This tends to eat into our sleeping time, but we can’t let that bother us. We still get up and go to work feeling tired, but that’s okay because we have to keep going. But is it really okay? Is it not more important to dedicate more of our time to sleep?
Health practitioners and researchers across the globe have always mentioned that sleep is as essential as eating a balanced diet. A combination of adequate slumber, regular exercise, and a balanced diet results in optimal health. Yet, somewhere along the line, we prioritize other tasks oversleep, which for many of us takes a back seat too often. This is ironic, since, without getting in some Z’s, we wouldn’t be able to function and do the tasks we want to do, at least not well. Over time, with poor sleep quantity and quality, our performance and productivity will get worse. And so will our health.
What is Sleep?
Sleep is a condition or process where the body partially shuts down, but also takes on an array of essential activities that don’t occur while awake (1). Awareness of the everything around us slowly disappears and we shut off. Our muscles start to relax, and our bodies are able to build and repair itself from any stress or injury, big or small, that may have occurred. Our brain finally gets a chance to rest and regenerate and process thoughts and information from the day.
Why is Sleep Important?
There are numerous important reasons why getting some shuteye should be a priority. The obvious being that with lack of sleep, we feel tired and aren’t able to keep going. It is as essential as eating, drinking and breathing. We need it to survive and it is not a lifestyle choice, although it partly gets treated that way. Perhaps you may consider this in a different light if you read about the importance of it and the benefits you may get in return for sleeping well (2).
One of the first symptoms that you may experience because of inadequate sleep is feeling tired, irritable, and less active than usual. A lack of this has also been known to result in forgetfulness. If this is prolonged, it can lead to worse symptoms like poor performance at work and in performing standard tasks. It also results in mood swings, poor attitude, and, in severe cases, depression. It is worth mentioning that depression may not only be linked to a hormonal imbalance or low vitamin D levels. But can be a resulting factor of lack of or poor sleep quality.
A study conducted by the Mental Health Foundation found that people who suffer from sleep deprivation tend to lack sufficient levels of concentration. The same study also found that sleep deprivation can result in relationship issues. Arguably, this is also a causal factor of suicide. However, this is only the case when other underlying issues like stress and depression are in play; hence insomnia is just a symptom of the other issues.
Additionally, sleep plays an important role in learning and memory. Research has shown a link between sleep deprivation and the impact on cognitive performance (3). Lack of slumber makes it impossible for the part of the brain responsible for learning to focus and take in new information. During your sleep, the brain gets time to store memories. Therefore, the lack of this interferes with this process.
All the symptoms named above are closely related to brain function. For instance, a lack of concentration is a result of improper functioning of the brain. It goes without saying that the brain is perhaps one of the most important parts of the body. Without being able to switch off, the brain does not function properly.
Numerous research results, including one from the University of Warwick, support the fact that sleep is very important for the health of the heart (4). Warwick University research results showed that close to 50% of people who are sleep deprived are highly likely to succumb to coronary diseases the likes of stroke (5). As sleep is said to be involved in hormone regulation, this also can affect blood pressure (6).
According to one of the authors of the research, lack of slumber leads to increased risk of heart attack and stroke in people who are 65 years old or older.
When you are asleep, your blood sugar levels tend to drop because the body has enough time to respond to different glucose needs of varying cells in the body. Lack of adequate sleep does not give the body enough time to complete this process. It also tends to throw our hormone balance out of sync (7). It can lead to less insulin (a hormone that regulates blood sugar levels) being released after we eat. While this is going on, more cortisol (a stress hormone) is released which makes it harder for the insulin to do its job. As a result of these two hormones being under and overproduced respectively, more blood sugar sits in the bloodstream. This increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Importance for Immune Health
Most of us know that when we feel a cold coming on or if we are already sick, that getting a good amount of rest is the best thing. So its importance for a healthy immune system should come at no surprise. Sleep deprivation can result in a weakened immune system (8). A test was conducted by Professor Morgan, who found that people with bad sleeping habits tend to fall sick more often. The role of the immune system is to fight off elements that cause illnesses before they have the chance to cause a disease onset. Lack of sleep slows down the reaction of the immune system to bacteria. The slowed attack result in one falling sick more often. Therefore, getting enough helps the body to recover faster.
Sleep insufficiency interferes with the normal functioning of the parts of the brain that are responsible for appetite control. These parts are the leptin and ghrelin. This results in increased appetite and lowers your level of satiety (9). It reduces your ability to control yourself from temptations to eat a lot of food, especially junk food. This can result in abnormal weight gain. The bottom line is that sleep helps to reduce the time spent eating, hence assists in weight management.
Another significant benefit is that it helps to improve athletic performance. Athletes benefit significantly from 7-9 hours of shuteye every night. Some spend as much as 10 hours sleeping. Although for most, having too much (more than 9 hours) can also have negative impacts. According to health experts, sleep is as important to athletes as eating the right quantities of calories and nutrients. The reason why this is the case is that it helps the body to recover. Sleep also enhances performance, increases energy, increases the quality of coordination, and improves mental functioning (10). It also can help to recover from injuries faster.
Numerous studies have shown that adequate amounts of sleep result in longer life (11). The reason why this is the case is that it helps to prevent life-threatening illnesses like diabetes, heart attacks, and stroke. The fact that it helps to amplify the performance of the immune system also helps to prevent illnesses that would otherwise result in life-threatening situations. Insufficient sleep is also one of the more significant causal factors of life-threatening road accidents. A good number of accidents are a result of the driver falling asleep on the wheel. This happens during severe cases of sleep deprivation that cause the brain to shut off for a minute. When this happens, you have no control over the situation, hence the accidents.
How Much Sleep Does Your Body Need?
According to the Sleep Foundation, the official recommended amount of sleep needed per day depends on an individual’s age (12). These hours are as follows:
• Older adults (age 65 years old and older) need 7-8 hours of sleep per day
• Adults (age 18 and 64 years old) need 7-9 hours
• Teenagers (age 14-17 years old) need 8-10 hours
• School going kids (age 6-13 years) need 9-11 hours
• Preschoolers (age 3 – 5 years old) need 10-13 hours
• Toddlers (age 1-2 years old) need 11-14 hours
• Infants (age 4 to 11 months) need 12-15 hours
• Newborns (age 0 to 3 months) need 14-17 hours
Keep in mind that the hours of sleep mentioned above should ideally be continuous and uninterrupted. The exception for newborns who have more interrupted nap time due to feeding needs. This means that even if you sleep for 9 hours in intervals of 3 hours, regardless of the length of the break in between, it won’t have the same effect. Therefore, for better results, try as much as possible to avoid mid-sleep interruptions.
Other Factors the Influence the Required Amount of Sleep
Specific gene mutations can influence the amount of sleep you need. For instance, some people may be okay with 6 hours a night, while others can barely function without at least 8 hours. Your genetic makeup may also determine when you need to sleep.
Quality of sleep
You may find that you need more hours if the quality of sleep you are getting is low. For instance, if you keep waking up in the middle of the night and going back to sleep, even if you are in bed for 9 hours, you may still wake up feeling tired. The beddings you use also play an impact.
If you drink alcohol, you may have noticed that you often feel very tired the next day. Sometimes even for a few days after depending on the amount you drank. Even just one glass of wine or other drink can interrupt your sleep. You may be under the impression that a glass of red wine can help you to fall asleep. And while that may be true, it also may cause you to wake during the night. It also puts your body through a stressed state and enables the body time to recover from the daily stress. Alcohol is a major cause of poor sleep quality, so it is best to try and reduce your alcohol intake.
Tips that will Help You Sleep Better
Come up with a bedtime routine and follow it strictly
A bedtime routine includes practices like going to bed at the same time each night. Adopting a routine will help you get into the mood of sleeping better each night. It also helps to improve the quality. In addition to a bedtime, come up with a calming routine like listening to music or meditating. Research has shown that going to be at a “normal” time such as 10 pm and waking up early seems to have a more positive effect than going to bed at 1 am and sleeping for the same amount of hours.
Minimise your screen time before sleep
Using electronics like your mobile phone and watching TV at night impacts your ability to fall asleep and your sleep quality. For a better sleeping experience, minimise the use of electronics at night and in your bedroom. Try avoiding the use of technology (and especially those work emails) at least 30 – 60 minutes before you sleep. Prepare for bedtime instead. Try reading a book, doing some light stretching or meditation to help you get into that relaxed state.
Keep off stimulating products
Numerous studies have linked the use of products like caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine to poor quality of sleep. If you want to improve your quality, make a point to stay off these products, especially in the afternoon and the evening.
Minimise long or irregular naps during the day
Constant irregular naps during the day affect your ability to fall asleep early in the evening. It, therefore, leads to a reduced amount of sleep at night.
Create a suitable environment in your bedroom
Factors like noise, extreme temperatures, external lights, and poor arrangement of furniture in the bedroom can negatively affect your sleep quality. Avoid blue lights at night, get rid of devices that have artificial lights, and make your bedroom environment as calm as possible. This will help you fall asleep faster and avoid interruptions while sleeping. Also, set your temperature depending on your rate of sweat and the season. Going to bed feeling cooler rather than warm can help.
The Final Word
Not only is the quantity of sleep important, but the quality too. The quality of sleep you get directly affects your physical and mental health. Working late at night, as productive as it seems, may result in more productivity challenges because of the negative impacts of sleep deprivation. For you to enjoy the benefits of sleep, adopt a good sleeping routine, making it a priority. Avoid stimulants that may affect your sleep, and try to unwind before bed. Quality sleep must be uninterrupted and comfortable, and hopefully you will wake up feeling fresh and ready to tackle the day.