For many people, the eight hours we spend asleep every night are seen as a necessary evil that can be manipulated to suit our desires at any one time, but as more and more research is done, the evidence in favor of routine in sleep schedules continues to mount.
While many of us like to burn the candles at both ends, making sure you get between seven and nine hours’ sleep a night has substantial health benefits, both curative and preventative, and while people often cite not getting enough sleep as a major societal problem, oversleeping can be just as destructive.
Below are ten reasons why getting a good night’s sleep really is the best medicine.
1. Sleep May Help Prevent Cancer
It has been proven that women who work night shifts are more likely to get breast cancer, for several reasons.
The first is cortisol, the stress hormone, which is released when a person is anxious and can be linked to the worsening of conditions like cancer. While most people experience increased cortisol production at dawn which decline throughout the day, shift workers often have higher levels in the afternoon.
The second is melatonin, which is released during sleep. Melatonin may have antioxidant properties and also reduces estrogen production from the ovaries. High estrogen levels increase the risk of breast cancer, so producing enough melatonin is vital in reducing the occurrence of breast cancer. In those who work shifts, less melatonin is produced, which in turn increases their risk of cancer.
At least two studies have shown that women who work shifts are more likely to die earlier from breast cancer. In the same way, getting less than at least seven hours’ sleep a night means your body won’t be producing the melatonin it needs to keep your cells healthy and cancer-free.
2. Sleep Reduces the Risk of Heart Disease
Lack of sleep is associated with high blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease and stroke. It’s also associated with a calcium buildup in the arteries. This buildup can cause plaques, which in turn leave you vulnerable to heart disease. Just one night of bad sleep can increase the risk of such a buildup in the arteries by 33%, and less than 6 hours’ sleep can massively increase the risk of developing changes to the make-up of the arteries.
3. Sleep Reduces the Risk of Diabetes
Getting a good night’s sleep helps regulate your blood sugar. In what is known as the ‘dawn effect’, blood sugar levels increase as we sleep, which is usually between 4am and 8am for someone who maintains a healthy sleep pattern.
In someone who is healthy, insulin manages this surge, telling the liver, muscle and fat cells to absorb the glucose from the blood, which helps regulate sugar levels.
The problem arises when people don’t get enough sleep. If a person doesn’t sleep long enough, their cells become less sensitive to insulin and ignore its promptings to absorb the glucose, which in turn increases sugar levels in the blood.
In a study of more than 4,000 people, it was found that people who got less than 6 hours’ sleep a night were either less sensitive to insulin or had full-blown diabetes. This was still found to be true even when other factors were considered.
However, before you get all snuggled up in bed for a solid 14-hour sleep session, it’s also been found that those who oversleep are also more likely to develop diabetes. As with most things in life, moderation is the key.
4. Sleep Reduces Stress
We’ve already mentioned cortisol and how it is known as the stress hormone, but lack of sleep can increase its production and put your body in a state of high alert. The problem with this is that being stressed causes you to sleep less, which in turn makes you more stressed, which in turn causes you to sleep less, and so on and so forth in a spiral of sleeplessness.
As we’ve already seen, stress can lead to heart disease and stroke, but sleep offers natural protection against stress, so all you need to do is sleep more. Easy, right?
Of course not. For those already suffering with stress, falling or staying asleep can be incredibly difficult. So what can someone who struggles with stress do to reduce it?
Relaxation techniques are a good starting point, as is discussing your stress, insomnia or disturbed sleep with your doctor. Click here for a list of relaxation techniques that can help improve the quality of your sleep.
5. Sleep Reduces Inflammation
I can see you looking confused already. Inflammation is a good thing, right? It protects the body against viruses and toxins, so how can it be bad?
The answer is that it isn’t until it becomes chronic or is triggered abnormally, at which point it can cause major long-term problems, including heart disease, cancer and stroke. The problem with lingering or abnormal inflammation is that it can damage healthy cells and tissues and even negatively impact organs and entire systems, which can chronically damage a person’s health.
How does sleep help? Well, sleep is regulated by our body’s circadian rhythms, which control our hormonal levels. If our sleep is out of sync from our circadian rhythms, inflammation can be the body’s natural response, even after just one night of partial sleep.
Of course, too much sleep can be as much of a problem as too little, so it’s important to listen to your body and hit that seven-to-nine-hour sweet spot and, if possible, go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day.
As well as chronic illness, inflammation is also associated with aging, so keep that thing in check.
6. Sleep Improves Memory
Sleep is vital for the body’s memory consolidation, as are dream stages of sleep. Research has found that the NREM stage, which is also known as slow wave sleep, and REM stages both reinforce different memory processes. NREM reinforces your episodic memory while REM reinforces both episodic and procedural memory.
Why is this important? Well, in an eight-hour sleep cycle, NREM is more likely to occur in the early stages, while REM is much more likely to occur in the latter half of the night. If a person therefore gets well under 8 hours’ sleep, their procedural memory is going to have far less time in the consolidation stage, which in turns means they may struggle to retain procedural memories.
7. Sleep Can Help Improve Weight Control
It has now been proven that people who sleep too little are more likely to be obese or overweight. As we’ve seen already in this post, our bodies’ processes are dictated by a finely tuned hormonal balance, and a lack of sleep can lead to increased cortisol levels in the evening, metabolic and endocrine changes, increased levels of ghrelin, and decreased levels of leptin, which are two hormones responsible for regulating appetite. If you want to shed those pounds, consider putting a good night’s sleep at the top of your to-do list.
8. Quality Sleep Can Help Depression
Two common symptoms of depression are insomnia and oversleeping. While these appear to contradict each other, both are indications of a body out of balance when it comes to sleep. Given that sleep is a restorative state, it has a massive impact on mood. Mood-related symptoms appear even when someone fails to get one good night of sleep, with them being more irritable in general. If this occurs on a regular basis, it can have an overwhelming impact on someone’s mental health, and as the body fatigues, so it further lowers mood and ability to sleep, which both contribute to a person’s desire to exercise. As exercise releases positive hormones, this lack can deepen the spiral even further.
While this may a contributing factor for many people, it is important to note that this is not a diagnosis and there may be many unrelated reasons why someone is suffering with depression. If you or a loved one is suffering from depression, you should consult a doctor for a proper diagnosis.
9. Napping Increases Your Ability to Function
Napping during the day can be the hit your body needs without resorting to caffeine as a stimulant. In fact, researchers found that those who napped were just as alert as those who had taken caffeine but profited from better memory consolidation and outperformed those who had drunk caffeine or taken a placebo. Those who napped also performed better in afternoon tests compared to those who hadn’t, with the same morning tests being the control against which the afternoon’s results were measured.
Napping is ideal for those who struggle to sleep at night because memory and concentration without sleep is much harder and even a little sleep can help improve performance. However, be careful not to sleep too much: it’s also proven that too much daytime sleep can negatively impact nighttime sleep.
10. Sleep Energizes You
Lastly, sleeping well and regularly gives you energy and helps you function to the best of your ability. There’s nothing worse than having to go to work when drowsy and irritated, so why not get to bed that extra hour earlier and give your body time to regulate itself?
Do you sleep too much or too little? Is eight solid hours an impossible dream or several hours too short?