Get More Sleep to be Healthier, Happier, Smarter

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 Our culture has forgotten what it’s like to be awake

-Dr. Robert Stickgold

Sleep health

If there was a magic pill that could instantly improve your health, your mood, and your memory, would you take it? Most of us don’t. By cutting our sleep hours down, we deprive our bodies of one of the most life-changing resources we have.

A little shut-eye could change your life.

Health:

There is a significant link between how well someone sleeps and their overall health and functioning.

-Lawrence J. Epstein MD

Skipping your full night’s sleep does more than put you in line at Starbucks. Lack of sleep has been associated with a roster of diseases, including:

Cardiovascular disease

People suffering from hypertension should take care to get a full night sleep. Even one night of bad sleep can cause higher blood pressure the following day. Large scale studies also show an increased risk of coronary heart disease in women who sleep too little, or far too much.

Obesity

Studies indicate that people who typically sleep less than six hour a night have a much higher likelihood to be overweight or obese. Along these lines, individuals that sleep eight ours have the lowest BMI (Body Mass Index). Alongside overeating and lack of exercise, poor sleep is one of three major risk factors for obesity.

Plus, consider this – if you sleep poorly you’ll be tired the next day and probably not too likely to put on your running shoes.

As if that wasn’t enough, lack of sleep contributes to certain hormone imbalances related to hunger – making you crave food after a bad night.

Weakened immune system

Your body needs sleep to better perform a range of biological functions. One of these is responding to infections and bolstering the immune system. Studies on rats have revealed that rats deprived of sleep were less able to fight off infection than well-rested rats. Specifically, they had a significantly lower white blood cell count. The same goes for you as for rats – skip the sleep, and you’re less able to kill off infections.

This makes some sense – last time you were sick, you were tired a lot. When fighting infections, the body emits “sleepiness inducing factors,” so that the body can sleep and better fight back.

Increased mortality

Long-term, not sleeping properly makes you just plain die faster. A series of cross-sectional epidemiological studies have shown that that sleeping 5 hours or less increases mortality risk from all causes by about fifteen percent.

These health risks don’t include injury or death from the sleeplessness of others, which carries its own dangers.

Mood:

It doesn’t take a doctor to know that skipping sleep can make you cranky and feeling grey the next day. Ensuring you get a full night sleep has the opposite effect – improved moods.

A study out of the University of Pennsylvania restricted the sleep of subjects to just under five hours of sleep per night, for one week. After the week, participants felt more anxious, angry, sad, and mentally fatigued. After their sleep patterns returned to normal, the subjects’ moods also returned. Along with this, other research has indicated that too little sleep leads to increase in cortisol (commonly called the stress hormone).

In our day-to-day lives, the difficulty may be more about recognizing that you have a sleep and mood problem. Self-diagnosis is one of the most unreliable methods of determining issues, and people have a tendency to not notice gradual changes over long period of time.

If you’ve been losing an hour here, 20 minutes there from your night, irritability and depression may creep into your life without you being aware.

Over a longer period of time, sleep problems are also correlated with depression, anxiety, and other disorders. However, it can be tricky to isolate the cause and effect here, for example, people with anxiety have trouble sleeping due to tension, which leads to poor sleep, rather than the reverse. It may be that the relationship between mental disorders and lack of sleep is more complex, and that the two may feed into one another.

Memory:

Most people I think believe that when you go to sleep the brain shuts off and does nothing and you waste several hours and then you wake up in the morning and try to get back to work. Nothing could be further from the truth.

-Dr. Robert Stickgold

When it comes to thinking power, lack of sleep can lead to impaired:

  • Concentration
  • Working memory
  • Mathematical capacity
  • Reasoning
  • Logic
  • Complex thought

Your body does more than rest when you sleep. In fact, your brain may be more active during sleep than it ever is during the day. Some of this has to do with a theory called Brain Plasticity. This theory states the brain goes through changes in structure and organization during sleep, and especially during deep sleep. (Babies, for example, do much of their brain development during their 13 hours of sleep a day.)

Why is this?

Sleep is key in the creation and organization of memories. While you snooze, your brain is working on the memories and activities of the day, making sense of them and slotting them into a bigger structure. This is why, when learning a new skill like playing the violin, you may struggle on a particular part, then sleep on it and come back the next day and nail it. The brain has been working on it while you sleep.

Likewise for all forms of learning – sleep after learning improves the way you retain knowledge. The brain stabilizes the memory, and it takes a final, more stable form.

Sleep before learning is crucial as well – not just because it’s hard to pay attention when drowsy, but because the brain simply doesn’t absorb information as well.

Finally, sleep strengthens the connections in the brain between memories, and takes them from a granular level to a more conceptual level. For example, your memory of the football game you watched yesterday is folded into a broader memory of your favorite football player.

The magic pill is right in front of you – an easy way to improve your health, your mood, and your memory. To take it, you just need to make sure your head hits the pillow.

Image source: Sleeping by pedrosimoes7, on Flickr

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