Sleep is one of the best things you can do from a self-care perspective, but it’s also one of the areas that is most likely to be neglected.
The recommended amount of shut-eye is between 7 and 8 hours per night, but many people fall far short of this. Lack of sleep can have a massive impact on almost every aspect of our wellbeing, from health to cognition to weight. You can perform healthy habits in every other area of your life but unfortunately, it likely won’t do much to counteract the damaging effects of poor sleep patterns.
Here’s a look at why getting enough sleep is so crucial for your health and wellbeing, and why diet alone or even exercise can’t undo the effects of not sleeping well.
Sleep Duration Versus Sleep Quality
We’re always being told how many hours we should be sleeping each night, but is the proper amount of sleep enough even if we can manage to achieve it?
Sleep quality refers to how well we sleep and is a completely different prospect to how long we sleep. It’s pretty easy to tell how long you sleep but the quality of it is a bit harder to determine.
Poor sleep quality means that you’re not sleeping in line with your circadian rhythm or going through all of the important sleep phases (particularly with REM sleep).
Some of the signs that your sleep quality isn’t as good as it could be include:
- Waking up during the night
- Not waking up naturally (e.g. you have to be abruptly awoken by your alarm clock most mornings)
Sleep and Health
What exactly does your body experience when you don’t get enough sleep? Many things are affected but here are some of the more serious effects that poor sleep patterns can have on your health:
- Lower immunity. If you seem to get every cough and cold going around, your sleep habits may be to blame. In one study, researchers deliberately exposed people to the common cold virus to see how likely they were to go onto develop a cold. Participants who had been sleeping for less than 7 hours per night had lower immunity and were almost 3 times more likely to be impacted. Even a small sleep debt has been linked to lower immunity.
- Higher risk of heart disease and stroke. Studies have looked at the link between lack of sleep and developing heart disease and stroke and it’s a scary connection. Getting less than 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night means a higher chance of developing Coronary Heart Disease or having a stroke – and dying from it.
- Higher risk of diabetes. A sleep debt can pave the way for developing Type 2 diabetes. In this study, just a week of not sleeping well reduced insulin sensitivity and raised concerns about whether consistently sleeping badly might open the door to developing health issues linked to insulin resistance.
- Increased inflammation. Inflammation is now linked to lots of different health problems and can be increased by sleep loss.
Sleep and Cognition
You’ve no doubt heard that eating the right foods can boost your brain health but it’s not just diet that can affect your memory and concentration.
Sleep is an important factor too, and lack of sleep has been shown to impair them. In fact, one study has suggested that even moderate sleep issues can be as damaging as alcohol in affecting performance!
The deeper stages of sleep are particularly vital when it comes to clear thinking, focus, memory, and learning. This is when your brain does a lot of its mental ‘sorting’, such as filtering out information that isn’t really needed right now. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it all adds up to better cognition and performance.
Sleep and Weight Gain
If you don’t sleep well, it can be a lot harder to maintain a healthy weight. The main problem is that it sends your metabolism a little bit crazy and can ruin your good intentions for eating well.
Lack of sleep has a big effect on hormones that are linked to appetite – namely leptin and ghrelin. Leptin helps to keep your appetite in check while ghrelin does the opposite.
Ideally, you want to have more leptin and less ghrelin, but not getting enough sleep throws this balance out and effectively switches them around. This means you’re a lot more likely to overeat, even when you’re technically full. And you’ll find it harder to shift stubborn fat on your stomach, as sleep deprivation encourages fat to build up in this area in particular.
Improving Your Sleep Quality
Some of the things you can do to try to get better quality sleep each night include:
- Making your room as dark as possible to support your circadian rhythm. Pitch black (or as close to it as you can get) is best.
- Setting a bedtime routine that involves going to bed at the same time every night and getting up at a specific time each morning.
- Switching off electronic devices at least an hour before bed (even your phone!) to reduce the amount of ‘blue light’ you’re exposed to just before bedtime. This ‘blue light’ makes it harder for your body to produce enough of the sleep hormone, melatonin, to help you sleep well.
If you haven’t been seeing sleep as a key part of your wellness routine, it’s definitely time to change that!
How well do you sleep? Comment below, I’d love to know more about your situation.