Let’s take it as a given that we all feel better when we get enough sleep. But sometimes it’s hard to prioritize sleep when there are other things you’d rather accomplish, especially since science hasn’t really been able to give us a clear physiologic explanation for why sleep is necessary.
Although we still can’t fully answer this basic question, though, research has demonstrated a number of health benefits correlated, if not caused by, better sleep, and also health consequences of inadequate or poor sleep.
- Sleep improves your memory. Remember those commercials years ago when Candace Bergen that every time you learn something, it makes a new “wrinkle in your brain?” This reorganization of the brain’s structure when both learning something new and consolidating that memory is known as brain plasticity, and sleep seems to be a necessary part of this process. You may even practice your new skills in your dreams, which strengthens that new neural pathway and makes those same skills easier to perform in your waking hours.
- Sleep helps you live longer. The reasons for this are not entirely clear, but it may have to do with the hormone melatonin (the “sleep hormone”), which is a powerful antioxidant, among other things. Insufficient sleep is also correlated with higher levels of inflammation, and therefore higher incidence of hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Even in the short term, sleep deprivation is correlated with dramatically reduced immune function.
- Sleep helps you lose weight. Consistently getting less than 6 hours of sleep per night is correlated with a higher BMI (basal metabolic index) – which means, it’s harder to lose weight if you’re not sleeping enough. This is because during sleep, your body secretes hormones that regulate appetite and blood sugar. Insufficient sleep leads to an increase in the hormone ghrelin (think of your stomach growling – this is a hunger hormone), a decrease in leptin (the opposite of ghrelin), and an increase in cortisol, the stress hormone, which (among other things) increases your blood sugar. Lack of sleep can therefore lead to obesity, poor blood sugar control, and even diabetes. (Conversely, 8 hours of sleep per night is correlated with a lower BMI.)
- Sleep improves performance, at whatever you do – be it athletics, school, work, or creative endeavors. This probably has to do with that feeling of drowsiness, which is at least partly due to the accumulation of adenosine, a by-product of neuronal activity which builds up during waking hours and leads to the feeling of being tired. (For more on adenosine and how coffee counteracts it, see here.)
- Sleep prevents accidents. Probably also in part due to the accumulation of adenosine in the brain, driving under the effects of drowsiness is responsible for 20 percent of all car accidents, causing 8000 deaths yearly in the US. In some cases it is considered even more dangerous than driving under the influence of alcohol.
- Sleep helps to restore and rejuvenate tissues. Many physiologic activities are reduced during sleep, but some are increased. One such activity is the release of growth hormone (GH), which helps to repair muscles and tissues from the normal wear-and-tear of everyday living. (For this reason, conditions like fibromyalgia, or chronic muscle pain, is correlated with insufficient sleep, and therefore insufficient GH to repair muscles.)
So now that you’re convinced more and better sleep is better for your health, what do you do about it if you have chronic sleep problems (like insomnia)? For otherwise healthy individuals, many cases of waking up in the night, difficulty falling asleep, and early awakening can be fixed with a few simple tricks (see this article for more details).
Some cases are more complicated or stubborn, though. Advancing age leads to lighter sleep, easier waking and earlier rising. Night shift workers need to maintain as regular a schedule as possible to give their internal clocks a chance to adjust, and many of them may adjust faster if they sleep before going to work instead of after, or nap beforehand as well as after, in order to mimic the normal shift schedule of going to work shortly after rising.
More stubborn cases of insomnia may require individual neurotransmitter testing and supplementation based on lab results, hormone balancing, and/or individualized homeopathic prescriptions. Make an appointment today to get your sleep back on track this year!