The Importance of Sleep

While many people search for the latest ‘secret’ to being healthier, fitter, smarter, and generally ‘better’ at work, relationships and life in general, there already exists a very simple and cost-free solution to all these needs: getting enough sleep. Science has shown that sleep is as vital to our wellbeing as food and water. But sleep plays a much bigger role that goes beyond survival, impacting significantly on our quality of life, and our ability to be at our physical, mental, emotional and social best. Here are some of the major reasons why we should never underestimate the importance of a good night’s sleep.

Healthy Body Function

The main reason for sleep is that our bodies need us to press ‘pause’ on all our daily activities and brainwork so that they can get down to some serious work of their own. For children, it’s clear that sleep is critical to growth and development, including playing a crucial role in puberty. And in adulthood, getting good quality sleep remains vital for all the important systems in the body to recover, get replenished and generally do their job properly. Sleep is your body’s prime time to heal, deal with stress,uries and any other harmful exposures. For example, while asleep, your blood pressure lowers, giving your heart and blood vessels a chance to rebuild and self-regulate. Getting quality sleep also plays a big part in regulating sugar levels, producing and regulating hormones, and controlling inflammation. It’s no surprise then that sleep deprivation has been linked to short-term and long-term health risks including impaired immune response, type 2 diabetes, and fertility issues.

Physical performance

If physical performance is a big part of your life or work, sleep will be a critical component of success. Professional athletes and sportspeople benefit from up to 10 hours of sleep per night, and their sleep schedule is just as important as calorie intake and other aspects of training. Sleep is not just vital for physical recovery and building up energy reserves, but also facilitates better brain and muscle function which aids with improved coordination, speed, reflexes and performance intensity.

Alertness & safety

Even just missing out on one or two hours a night for several nights will leave you feeling less than human and unable to function normally, especially when it comes to performing tasks that require alertness and focus. While automated behaviours are not affected, sleep deprivation will impair your ability to process complex situations, assess risks and consequences, deal with the unexpected, communicate effectively, think innovatively, keep track of changing events and update your course of action accordingly.  What’s more, sleep is such a necessity that your body will start stealing ‘microsleeps’ (ranging from a few seconds to half a minute) without you even realising. It’s easy to see why tiredness can have devastating consequences on the road, and in any kind of work that impacts on people’s safety and wellbeing.

Mental health & performance

Even though scientists don’t have the complete story yet, we know that sleep is prime time for our brains to do much of their processing and organising, including the important task of consolidation, where information is moved from the ‘butterfly net’ of short-term memory into the much more secure long-term memory bank. Allowing our brains to do what they need to during those crucial night-time hours means that we can wake up better at focusing, retaining information, problem-solving, and generally being more creative and productive.  On the other hand, research has proved strong links between sleep disorders and mental health conditions, particularly depression. According to estimates, 90% of people with depression complain about quality of sleep.

Social and emotional intelligence

Sleep isn’t just integral to physical and mental performance, but also how we read and respond to social and emotional cues and information. For example, one study showed that sleep loss impaired participants’ ability to recognise expressions of happiness and anger.

When you don’t get enough sleep, you’re not only likely to be in a bad mood and not feeling your usual self, but your ability to show empathy and act with emotional intelligence is much lower.

Stress Levels

Want to lower your stress levels? Don’t fall into the trap of staying up late to polish that worrisome presentation – just get some sleep. One of the critical body systems that relies on a good night’s sleep is the endocrine system, which plays a key role in most of the things we do, from eating and digestion, growth and reproduction, to sleep itself. Not getting enough sleep can put some real bugs in the system of hormone production and regulation – one of the main offenders being the overproduction of stress hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine.

Appetite & weight regulation

There have been many studies looking at connections between sleep, weight gain and obesity. Although lack of sleep itself is not a direct cause of weight gain, people who get less than the minimum 7 hours a night are much more likely to struggle with eating habits and weight regulation. One recent South African study found that participants who slept less than 6 hours a night had a Body Mass Index 12% higher on average than those who got the recommended 7-9 hours, and those who slept less than 5 hours had some of the highest BMIs.  One reason for this is that lack of sleep disrupts the balance of the hormones that control appetite. In other words, when you’re tired, you’re much more likely to succumb to cravings.  On top of this, sleep loss interferes with the production of insulin – the hormone responsible for regulating metabolism.

What qualifies as a good night’s sleep?

Your sleep needs will change according to age, health conditions, and special circumstances, but most of us know that 7-8 hours of sleep per night is the general recommendation for adults. Teenagers and children of course need more – the rule being, the more growth and development lies ahead, the more sleep is required. Newborns, for example, sleep up to 18 hours a day, while teenagers require 8-10 hours.

However, the amount of sleep you get is only half the issue – just as important is the quality of sleep. Sleep works in cycles of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and non-REM sleep. Your body needs to go through a number of these cycles without too much disruption in order to get its ‘sleep work’ done and enable you to feel properly rested. If you don’t get this quality sleep for whatever reason, be it interruptions from a baby or restless partner, breathing difficulties such as sleep apnea, or an uncomfortable bed, you’ll begin building up ‘sleep debt’. Just like financial debt, the more sleep debt you have, the harder it gets to deal with it.

Avoiding sleep deprivation

Sleep deprivation is a legitimate form of torture. And yet millions of adults subject themselves to it on a regular basis. In fact, estimates by the CDC suggest that at least 1 in 3 adults consistently don’t get the sleep they need.

Of course, there are often circumstances and factors beyond your control that may steal your precious sleep time. But there are certainly some components that you do have control over for getting a regular good night’s sleep:

  1. Create a conducive sleeping environment that’s low on noise, technology and other potential disruptions
  2. Make sure you have a mattress that’s boosting and not hindering your quality of sleep
  3. As far as it’s within your power, stick to a regular bedtime and rising time to make sure you get your 8 hours of sleep time in
  4. Finally – although it may be easier said than done - prioritise your sleep!