When we think about things we can change to improve our health, sleep quality is rarely at the top list despite being one of the most crucial aspects that directly impacts your physical, mental and emotional health. Society has tricked us into thinking that being tired all of the time is normal; it’s a sign that you’re working hard and if you do prioritize your rest, you’re considered lazy. Add on the stress that comes with the daily grind that you “must do in order to be successful”, and it’s no surprise that studies found approximately 50 to 70 million Americans struggle with some type of sleep-related problem. This has led to what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are calling a public health epidemic. But it isn’t just feeling tired that is the problem. Poor sleep can lead to a vast array of health concerns, symptoms and conditions – from high blood pressure and diabetes to obesity and depression.
Fortunately, there are many things you can do to start improving your sleep hygiene and enhancing the amount and quality of nightly rest. Whether it’s taking some natural supplements that induce sleep and relaxation, shutting off technology to avoid blue screens or getting in a daily walk each day, some simple adjustments can go a long way. In this article, we cover everything you need to know to understand the purpose of sleep, the risks of poor sleep quality and most importantly, how to correct your sleep habits to give your mind and body the rest it needs to function properly and flourish. Better yet, the benefits will flood into all aspects of your health and life.
The Purpose of Sleep
Sleep is, inarguably, one of the most important aspects of your health as it’s necessary for a vast array of biological functions. It allows your mind and body to recharge, so you can feel alert when you wake up. Without it, the brain is unable to function properly, hindering your ability to think clearly, process memories and concentrate, which can quickly affect other components of your health, wellness, career, relationships and overall quality of life.
To fully understand the purpose of sleep and why it’s so important, here’s a look at some of the ways sleep helps you:
Supports Brain Function
One of the most important benefits of sleep is that it supports proper and healthy brain function. It allows your nerve cells to reorganize and clear out waste from your central nervous system that has been collected throughout the day, so it can work properly when you wake up. Sleep helps support many brain functions, such as learning, memory, creativity, problem-solving, decision-making, concentration and focus.
Furthering on the memory aspect, sleep is essential for converting short-term memories into long-term memories. It’s also necessary for forgetting or erasing unneeded information that can clutter the nervous system.
Getting adequate sleep at night allows your body to conserve energy, which also reduces your caloric needs during the day. In simpler terms, your body doesn’t need or use as much energy to complete tasks when you get sufficient sleep. So, you can do much more without feeling completely drained afterwards.
As mentioned previously, sleep is needed for the mind and body to restore itself. When you sleep, your cells repair and regrow, which helps with all of the other crucial processes that occur when you are sleeping, such as muscle repair, tissue growth, hormone release and protein synthesis.
Emotional Regulation and Wellbeing
Your emotional health is another component of your health that is deeply affected by the amount and quality of sleep you get, as brain activity increases in areas of the brain associated with emotional regulation during periods of rest.
Maintain Mental Health
Since sleep aids in areas of the brain where emotions are processed, it also directly impacts your mental health. For example, brain activity increases in an area called the temporal lobe, which controls how your fear response and how you respond in stressful situations. Additionally, when you don’t get enough sleep, the amygdala (a part in the brain) is likely to overreact. This can lead to high levels of stress and anxiety.
When thinking about weight loss or management, diet and exercise is usually the main focus. However, sleep is also a huge component as it controls your hunger hormones, such as ghrelin which increases appetite and leptin which increases satiety. Not getting enough sleep causes your ghrelin to increase and suppresses your leptin. This can result in you feeling hungrier and consuming more calories throughout the day.
Chronic sleep deprivation has also been linked to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome.
Healthy Immune System
The health and strength of your immune system depends on your sleep, as experts have found that sleep deprivation can inhibit your immune response and make you more susceptible to germs. This is because your body makes the protein that fights off infection and inflammation when you sleep. It also produces a variety of immune cells and antibodies which are needed to destroy harmful germs and prevent sickness
The Potential Risks of Not Getting Enough Sleep
Now that you know the many reasons the mind and body need sleep, it’s easy to see the potential risks associated with sleep deprivation. After all, when you don’t get enough sleep, your body has a more difficult time functioning. As such, sleep has been linked to a variety of health problems associated with the heart, blood, brain, kidneys and mental health.
Inadequate sleep has also shown to be dangerous in many other ways as well. For example, it can increase your chances of being in a serious car accident due to drowsiness and risk of falls and broken bones in older adults.
You may also experience a wide range of symptoms, such as:
- Poor memory
- Mood changes
- Poor focus
- Difficulty concentrating
- Poor motor function
- Weight gain
- Insulin resistance
- High blood pressure
- Weakened immune system
- Chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes
- Increased inflammation
Healthy Habits That Can Boost Your Sleep Quality
Making some simple changes in your nightly habits, commonly referred to as your “sleep hygiene” can make a huge improvement on your sleep quality and overall health. Some things you can do include:
- Set a schedule: wake up and go to bed at the same time every day
- Avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol before going to bed
- Relax before going to sleep (take a bath, read, meditate, drink chamomile tea, etc.)
- Create a calming atmosphere (dim the lights, spray some lavender, turn off technology, eliminate loud sounds, make it a comfortable temperature, etc.)
- Get physically active during the day for 20-30 minutes
- Limit daytime naps
- Release your worries (journal or use stress management techniques, such as making a to-do list, organizing for the next day, etc.)
- Get more bright light during the day (increase daily sunlight exposure or invest in a SAD lamp)
- Reduce blue light exposure in the evening (Wear glasses that block blue light, use an app to block blue light on your laptop or computer, stop watching TV and turn off any bright lights 2 hours before heading to bed.
- Have a bedtime snack so you don’t go to bed hungry but make sure to avoid large meals a couple of hours before bed
- Take a melatonin (sleep hormone) supplement to naturally induce sleep by telling your brain when it’s time to relax and rest
- Use other natural supplements for relaxation and sleep such as:
- Ginkgo biloba: Helps with sleep, relaxation, and stress reduction
- Glycine: Improves sleep quality
- Valerian root: Helps you fall asleep and improves sleep quality
- Magnesium: Improves relaxation and enhances sleep quality
- L-theanine: Improves relaxation and sleep
- Lavender: Induces a calming and sedentary effect to promote sleep
- Invest in a comfortable bed, mattress, and pillow
Without sleep, your brain and body can’t function properly. Sleep affects almost every type of tissue, organ and system in the body, including the brain, heart, and lungs, metabolism, immune function, mood, and disease prevention. Chronic lack of sleep can also lead to many serious health concerns and conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, anxiety, and depression.
The good news is that you can improve your sleep and ultimately, your overall health and wellness simply by making a few changes to your daily routine and habits. However, you may also want to visit a practitioner to rule out any possible sleep disorders or to receive proper medical advice if a sleep disorder is found.