The Importance of Sleep on Our Health

We all know that a bad night’s sleep can make us feel out of sorts the next day, but how many of us stop to think about how our sleeping patterns may be affecting our overall health? Surveys show that 1 in 3 people suffer from poor sleep (i.e. poor-quality sleep or not enough hours per night), and so this is an issue that we should be paying closer attention to.

A lack of sleep, or sustained periods of poor-quality sleep, not only causes bad mood and a lack of focus, it can also lead to a number of chronic health conditions such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes. This, coupled with the more immediate risk of accidents caused by a lower ability to concentrate, can shorten life expectancy.

As a rule, most people need 8 hours of good quality sleep per night to be able to properly function, although this can vary slightly from person to person. The National Sleep Foundation states that indicators of good quality sleep are being asleep for more time than you are awake when in bed (sleeping at least 85% of the total time), falling asleep in 30 minutes or less, waking up no more than once a night and being awake for 20 minutes or less after initially falling asleep.

So, what are the main benefits of good quality sleep? According to the NHS, there are 6 ways that sleep can benefit your long-term health.

  1. Boosts Immunity
    – Prolonged lack of sleep leads to a reduced immune system and poorer overall health, so maintaining good sleep hygiene can combat this and help the body to fight off infections.
  2. Maintaining a Health Weight
    – Studies have found that people who sleep for less than 7 hours a night tend to gain more weight and have a higher risk of being obese.
    – Sleep deprived people have lower levels of leptin (a chemical that makes you feel full) and higher levels of ghrelin (the hunger stimulating hormone).
  3. Boosts Mental Wellbeing
    – There is evidence to suggest that a lack of good quality sleep can lead to long term mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.
    – A survey has found that the majority of people with mental health problems slept on average less than 6 hours per night.
  4. Prevention of Diabetes
    – People who routinely get less than 5 hours of sleep per night may be at an increased risk of suffering from type two diabetes. This is because sleep deprivation changes the way the body processes glucose. Regular good quality sleep can prevent this.
  5. Lowers the Risk of Heart Disease
    – Sleep deprivation is associated with an increased heart rate, increased blood pressure and an increase in the levels of chemicals associated with inflammation. Getting the correct amount of good quality sleep can help to prevent each of these issues occurring, therefore lowering the strain on the heart.
  6. Increases Fertility
    – People who are trying to conceive are often advised to improve their sleep hygiene. This is because poor quality sleep/sleep deprivation can reduce the secretion of reproductive hormones, therefore hindering a couple’s chances of conception.

So, now that we know how a lack of sleep affects our overall health, and the benefits of increasing the amount of good quality sleep you get per night, what can you do to improve your sleep routine? It is worth keeping in mind that sleep deprivation is not cured after one or two good nights sleep, the effects may take a few weeks to be resolved. The NHS has a number of recommendations that can help.

  1. Starting on a weekend, add an hour or two of sleep per night, allowing yourself to wake up naturally without an alarm. You may find that you sleep for over 10 hours for the first couple of nights, but this should start to naturally reduce.
  2. Ditch the caffeine. And the sugary energy drinks while you’re at it too. Whilst these short term pick me ups may feel helpful at the time, they inevitably result in a crash later on and can disrupt your sleeping patterns further.
  3. Make a sleep routine and stick to it, ensuring that you go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.
  4. Make time for winding down. This looks different to everyone, but some examples of how you may like to relax are;
    – taking a warm bath
    – writing a to do list for the next day to stop your mind from racing
    – relaxation exercises
    – relaxation CDs/soundtracks
    – read a book
    – avoid using electronic devices for at least an hour before bed (TV and smartphones included)
  5. Make sure that your bedroom is a relaxing and sleep-friendly environment.