Sleep is one of the most fundamental activities needed for your body and mind to function at their best. Yet, it’s also one of the first things compromised by many people in their quest for a better life.
Today, this has led to a dizzying array of health issues, so much so that sleep deprivation has now become a global health issue. An estimated 35% of Americans are rating their sleep quality as “poor” or “only fair”. And short-term insomnia is prevalent among 30% of US adults, with 1 in 10 experiencing chronic insomnia. In fact, the state of sleep health is so dire that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has now declared sleep disorders a public health epidemic.
But why is sleep so essential?
The signs of a good night’s sleep are unmistakable—you feel fresh and well-rested. But there’s much more that happens in the human body during your slumber.
There are some essential physiological activities that kick into gear as you sleep. And depriving your body of these could lead to grave physical and mental health consequences.
1. Sleep is the essential healing time for your body and mind.
Sleep helps the repairing and restoration processes of your body. It allows the brain to perform some critical functions needed for your body and mind to recoup from the daytime onslaught.
Here are some important restorative activities that happen while you sleep.
- The pituitary gland releases the human growth hormone (HGH) into the bloodstream during sleep. This promotes the growth, restoration, and reproduction of cells. Therefore, the healing of most wounds and muscle damage takes place during this time.
- Physical activity significantly declines during sleep. So, for example, your body temperature will drop and breathing will slow down. And this helps the body to conserve energy.
- Sleep provides a resting time for body muscles as well. Muscle activity decreases during Non-REM sleep and most body muscles shift to a state of near-paralysis during the REM phase. And blood pressure also slows down during deep sleep to ease the workload on the heart muscles, providing a much-needed rest.
- There is an increased release of cerebrospinal fluid while you’re asleep. This helps remove toxins in the brain that get built up during the day.
2. Sleep is essential to sort and consolidate memory.
The importance of sleep for memory has been known for years. Research shows that brain areas such as the hippocampus and the neocortex that are linked to memory during waking hours are also active when you’re asleep.
In fact, sorting and consolidation of memories collected during waking hours take place in slow-wave sleep. This activity helps you retrieve those memories in the future. So, it’s essential for your long-term memory and for the process of learning new information. One study by the University of Bern in Switzerland shows that even learning new vocabulary is possible during the active phases of deep sleep.
And studies have also uncovered links between sleep and certain memory-related illnesses. For example, research now confirms that sleep is essential to slow and delay Alzheimer’s disease and associated memory loss.
3. Sleep can help boost immune responses.
Lack of sleep could compromise your immune system and expose you to illnesses. It can also slow down the healing process.
So, a good night’s sleep is essential for the body’s immune responses to function at an optimal level. For instance, the immune system releases Cytokines during sleep. These are important for cell communication. They help activate cells to move into areas of infections and inflammation. Sleep also helps the effective functioning of T-cells that are essential for the disease-fighting mechanism of the immune system.
4. Sleep helps regulate hormones.
The regulation of certain hormones during sleep is critical for a healthy physiology.
Take, for instance, the hunger hormones. The production of ghrelin, the hunger-inducing hormone, declines during sleep while leptin, the hunger-suppressing hormone increases. This is an important physiological function to regulate your appetite and prevent obesity.
Sleep is also essential to regulate insulin levels and reduce the risk of metabolic diseases. Lack of sleep, for example, can increase the risk of developing insulin resistance, a condition that can lead to diabetes and heart disease. “One night of total sleep deprivation may be as detrimental to insulin sensitivity as six months on a high-fat diet,” says Josiane Broussard, Ph.D.
Similarly, sleep helps regulate cortisol levels in your body. Cortisol, commonly known as the stress hormone, is essential to manage your stress response. It also plays an important role in a variety of activities such as metabolism and the regulation of blood sugar and blood pressure.
5. Sleep is essential for cognitive health.
Sleep can help boost concentration, restore clarity in thinking, improve alertness, and sharpen reflexes. It affects your ability to rationalize, make decisions, and solve problems.
Even naps or brief sessions of sleep can have cognitive benefits. This is likely why napping at work is allowed in countries like Spain, Italy, and Japan.
And depriving yourself of sleep can severely impair these critical cognitive functions. In fact, it has a direct impact on your productivity and efficiency. It’s costing US businesses an estimated $60 billion in lost productivity. And according to studies, it’s also associated with increased work-related injuries and risk-taking behavior. Today, the majority of the nearly 100,000 medical error-related deaths are linked to sleep deprivation.
So, make your sleep health a priority
Continuing to neglect the essential link between sleep and your physical and mental wellbeing could leave you with damaging consequences that are hard to reverse. So, sleep needs to reclaim its rightful place in your daily routine. Make it a priority not just in your life, but also of your loved ones’.