On any given day, we are struggling to find enough time to do the things we need and want to do. Between our careers, our relationships, our hobbies, our health and all the other things we are responsible for, it can feel as though we never have enough hours in the day. Often times, the first causality of a busy schedule is sleeping. However, sleep is the most integral aspect of our physical and mental health.
Our bodies go through a lot of wear and tear during the course of a day, and a good night’s sleep is the only opportunity to relax and rebuild. People have a lot of different opinions on what a “good night’s sleep” actually looks like, but the bottom line is that the average adult needs six to eight hours of quality sleep each night to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Quality sleep, which is very different from tossing and turning in bed until the wee hours of the morning, means four to five uninterrupted sleep cycles. The typical sleep cycle lasts 90 to 120 minutes and begins in non-rapid eye movement (NREM) stage 1. If you’ve ever dozed off during a particularly boring meeting in the afternoon, you’ve experienced this stage. Hopefully, though, you’re tucked into bed and you can move on to NREM stages 2 and 3, before finally entering the rapid eye movement (REM) stage. This is the stage when your body gets to work restoring itself. (Prevention)
During REM, your breathing and your heart rate slow down and your blood pressure drops. Your muscles and organs relax, and your body pumps out growth hormones to help build muscle cells or heal injuries. Your liver, which has spent all day detoxifying, switches to building and synthesizing.
In addition to all the work that your body is doing, your brain is also restoring and strengthening. Recent studies have found that during sleep the brain clears away toxic byproducts, which are believed to be connected to Alzheimer’s disease. It’s also storing the new memories that you made since the last time you slept. The important memories are strengthened while the rest are essentially left behind, which explains why you can only remember certain events or details from the past. Some researchers believe that this memory-storing process could also explain why we dream during REM cycle. As the brain sifts through memories, deciding which to strengthen and which to leave behind, it affects our dreams.
The more we learn about the physiological processes that are happening while we sleep, the more we understand just how important sleep is to our overall health. If you don’t give your body this time to relax and restore itself, you’re putting yourself at risk for a lot of health concerns. Lack of sleep can wreck havoc on your immune system, making you more susceptible to getting sick. Sleep deprivation also puts you at a much higher risk for heart disease and heart attack.
People who don’t get six to eight hours of sleep each night are also at a higher risk of obesity. This is because when you’re sleep deprived, your brain starts producing more cortisol (a stress hormone) and less leptin (which is responsible for telling your brain when you’re full). Sleep deprivation also means increased production of ghrelin (an appetite stimulant) and impaired judgment. All of this adds up to a nightmare of hormones that are begging you to order a large pizza instead of a healthy salad.
As scientists have begun to learn more about the role that sleep plays in our health, it has become increasingly clear that sleep has an enormous impact on our mental health. Not only does sleep affect our memory retention and our ability to focus on tasks, but it can also contribute to symptoms of depression and anxiety. In a 2007 study, participants with insomnia were found to be five times as likely to develop depression than those without.. Interestingly enough, it goes both ways: insomnia often appears as an early symptom of depression.
Even in spite of the overwhelming evidence pointing to the importance of sleep, sometimes getting a good night’s sleep can feel impossible. Here a few tips to help you get the Zzz’s your body needs:
- Cut off food and alcohol a few hours before bedtime.
- Keep your bedroom at a cool temperature.
- Avoid caffeine in the afternoons.
- Ban electronics from the bedroom.
- Squeeze a workout in the morning. Exercising too close to bedtime can impact your sleep.
- Create a sleep schedule. When you’re going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, your morning alarm doesn’t seem so bad anymore.