Getting enough quality sleep each night is just as essential as a healthy diet and regular exercise. As a nurse practitioner with over two decades of experience, I’ve seen firsthand the widespread health effects poor sleep can have.
Why Is Sleep Important?
In our modern-day world, where work can find us at all hours, where we hold computers in our hands and have access to 24-hour streaming, it is easy to get distracted and put off those much-needed ZZZs each night.
Although your metabolism, breathing, and heart rate may slow, your body and brain are still very active while you sleep. Sleep is when our body works to repair and restore tissue, muscle, organs, and other cells. Sleep is a critical time when our body regulates numerous hormones.
While sleeping, our brain works diligently to convert short-term memories to long-term storage, and your brain’s waste removal system, known as the glymphatic system, removes toxic by-products from your brain.
How Much Sleep Do We Need?
According to the CDC, that number depends on your age. However, most adults require 7-9 hours of sleep per night. We know that consistently getting less than seven hours of sleep per night can have widespread health risks. For example, it is regularly reported that chronic sleep deficiency increases one’s risk of developing diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, increased infections, cancer, and mood disorders such as anxiety or depression.
The 6 Health Effects of Poor Sleep
1. Weight Gain.
When we get insufficient sleep, our appetite-regulating hormones are disrupted. Ghrelin, our hunger hormone, goes up, and leptin, our satiety hormone, goes down. This imbalance leads to feeling hungrier and less satisfied. This can contribute to food cravings, increased calorie consumption, and weight gain.
2. Insulin Resistance.
Even one night of poor sleep has been shown to increase insulin resistance the following day. As a result, our bodies produce less insulin, and our cells are less receptive to insulin, leaving us with increased blood glucose (sugar) levels. Over time, this puts one at an increased risk of developing diabetes.
3. Cardiovascular Disease.
Poor sleep increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. It can also contribute to higher levels of inflammation, cholesterol, and triglycerides. All of which can contribute to cardiovascular disease.
4. Weakened Immunity.
Lack of sleep may lead to a decrease in protective proteins called cytokines. In addition, our infection-fighting antibodies and cells are often reduced during periods when we don’t get enough sleep. This weakens our immune system and makes us more prone to not only getting sick more often but also increasing and perhaps having a more difficult recovery time.
5. Difficulty Learning.
Poor sleep strains our brains and decreases our ability to focus, learn, and retain new material. This disruption interferes with our ability to learn and process new material. Sleep is essential to keep our brains healthy, especially as we age.
6. Mood Disorders.
When we are short on sleep, our bodies often react by making us more emotional, short-tempered, and moody. Over time, irregular sleep habits or lack of quality sleep can contribute to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
It’s well-established that sleep is a significant factor in overall health and longevity. Sleep impacts every system within our body. When our circadian rhythm, the body’s sleep/wake cycle, is disrupted by decreased or fragmented sleep, it can cause dysfunction in our gene expression, cellular repair, and repair of damaged DNA. When this happens, it puts us at an increased risk of developing immune-system issues, disease, and other often-times preventable health issues.
What can we do to get a better night’s sleep? There are ways to improve our sleep habits and, in effect, our overall health and well-being.
9 Best Strategies for a Better Night’s Sleep
Having the same sleep/wake time each day is the most critical factor for sleeping well.
2. Morning Light.
Getting natural light within the first half hour of waking up helps to regulate our cortisol and melatonin hormones, which keep our body’s circadian rhythms in sync.
3. Get Moving.
Regular, daily exercise helps your body relax and therefore sleep better at night. Pick up your pace and aim for 10,000 steps per day!
4. Curb the Caffeine.
Everyone metabolizes caffeine differently, but caffeine’s half-life is generally around five hours. Therefore, half of the caffeine in an 8-ounce cup of coffee will still be in your system five hours later. So, think about that afternoon Cup of Joe, because it could affect your sleep later on.
5. Eat Early.
Our digestion starts to slow down in the evening. The later we eat, the more difficult it may be to digest our meal which can lead to indigestion and reflux. Try to finish your meal at least three hours before you plan to go to bed.
6. Go Easy With Alcohol.
Even two drinks can contribute to fragmented sleep, leaving you tired and mentally sluggish the next day. Alcohol can disrupt melatonin production, which affects your circadian rhythms.
7. Wind It Down.
We are great at creating regular nighttime routines for kids. Yet why can’t we seem to create successful nighttime routines for ourselves? As adults, we forget how important they are for us too. Creating a nightly routine helps to signal our body and brain that it is time to unwind. Try taking a warm bath with Epsom salts, reading a book, or journaling. More importantly, find a routine that works best for you.
Turn off electronics at least an hour before bed. The blue light emitted from electronic screens can prevent the natural rise in melatonin (your sleep hormone). If you need to be on your electronics, I suggest installing nighttime apps or wearing blue light-blocking glasses.
9. Keep Your Bedroom Cool & Dark.
Your breathing, heart rate, and body temperature drop as you sleep. If your bedroom is cool, it makes it easier to fall asleep. Aim to keep a nighttime temperature around 65 degrees; this is usually ideal for sleeping. Make sure you use curtains or blinds to keep out artificial light. Even small amounts of light can disrupt our sleep.
The bottom line? To live a long, healthy life, start with quality sleep each night.