Do you love sleep? We sure do. But all too often, a busy schedule and dozens of commitments every day means we’re not sleeping as much – or as well – as we could be. And beyond just feeling rested and energized, not getting enough sleep affects your health in other critical ways.
We’ve all experienced the slowed reaction time, fuzzy thinking, compromised memory and moodiness that come from a lack of shut-eye. When this happens on occasion, the body can recalibrate if it’s given ample sleep promptly; however, extended periods of sleep deprivation affect your brain, your muscles, your immune system and more.
To support all of the other great choices you make for your body in a given day, including eating well and working out, it’s important to prioritize sleep. Here’s 3 ways not getting enough sleep affects your health (and some tips for how to get more shut-eye).
What happens during sleep?
When we sleep, the body has an opportunity to repair muscles, properly organize and store memories and regulate hormone production. Here’s what happens to your body as you sleep.
Your brain needs a chance to reset and detoxify when it’s not being used to make spreadsheets, run a 10K or have a conversation. Overnight, it sorts and stores information gathered throughout the day, and strengthens pathways that make recalling easier in the future. This includes linguistic and motor pathways, so that new language and the tennis swing you’re working on perfecting become stronger while you snooze.
There is also some evidence to suggest that the brain changes its state overnight so that it can flush out toxins – the by-products of cellular activity – while you sleep. Neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s have been linked to deposits in the brain; sleep may be implicated in removing these.
When you don’t get enough sleep, it interrupts activity in parts of your brain, particularly those involved with decision-making, problem-solving and coping with change. Most seriously, sleep deficiency has been linked to depression, suicide and an increase in risk-taking behavior.
Your muscles and bones
It’s tricky for the body to rebuild while it’s in use, so the time you spend supine overnight allows your cells to regenerate without interruption. Cells belonging to organs, bones and blood vessels, in particular, are replenished (while old, dead cells disposed of) during sleep. Muscle cells are also rebuilt overnight as the microtears caused by exercise are stitched back together, strengthening and improving muscle resilience.
Because of all of the rebuilding work the body should do overnight, ongoing sleep deficiency has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke.
Your immune system can also suffer from lack of rest. When these cells are not properly maintained, they can succumb to invaders, making you more likely to catch a cold or be unable to fight off infection effectively.
Finally, hormones are balanced during sleep, particularly those that control hunger and satiety. The body regulates its insulin production and the balance of hormones responsible for fertility overnight as well.
When it comes to hormones, sleep deprivation can increase your risk of obesity due to an imbalance of leptin and ghrelin, which control how much you consume. If your insulin levels aren’t properly maintained with sleep, your risk of diabetes increases. Insufficient sleep can also interfere with fertility, monthly cycles and sperm production.
How can you get more sleep?
The effect of losing just one to two hours of sleep a night for a few nights in a row can have the same effect as not sleeping at all. Improving your sleep quantity and quality is a worthwhile venture and luckily, can be pretty simple if you create an environment – and a schedule – that is conducive to good rest.
Stick to a consistent schedule
Waking up and going to bed at consistent times each day can be a simple way to maintain a natural sleep-wake cycle. Set aside a 7- to 8-hour window for sleep. The body will adjust to a routine and be prepared to fall asleep and wake up rested. This means keeping your weekday and weekend sleep patterns as close as possible (although variation of about an hour in either direction can be okay).
Create a sleep-specific space
Use your bedroom for sleeping. Avoid watching TV or looking at a screen when you’re in bed: not only does the blue light from the screen interfere with your body’s natural rhythms, it tells your brain that this space isn’t necessarily a restful, sleep-centric one. If you’re unable to fall asleep after 20 minutes in bed, resist taking out your phone: get up, go do something quiet until you feel tired and then return to bed to maintain your “this is a space for sleep” rule.
A dark, cool, quiet space is most likely to promote good rest (although everyone is different, so experiment to find what works best for you). If you constantly find yourself jostled awake by sounds in or around your home, you might want to consider using earplugs or a white noise machine to help you fall asleep without disruption.
Avoid stimulants later in the day
If you’re sensitive to caffeine or sugar, avoid these after mid-afternoon to help ease the transition into rest later on. A calm brain is a brain more likely to fall asleep (and stay asleep until morning).
Wind down before bed
Eating a huge meal right before bed or coming home from a stressful day and trying to fall asleep immediately will work against you. Give your brain a little time to acclimate to the idea of beginning a rest before you crawl into bed. Reading (off paper, not a screen), gentle stretching or a bath can help calm your system so it’s prepared for sleep. Work with your body instead of against it so that it can get the most out of the time you’re in bed.
– Amy Height