An Irish proverb advises that "a good laugh and a long sleep are the two best cures in the doctor's book." As it turns out, this ancient adage was ahead of its time. Modern science has since repeatedly borne out an inextricable link between sleep and health. Sleep may not cure all ailments, but it certainly can prevent many of them.
The Sleep Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving health through sleep education, conducted a study in 2011 in which 63 percent of Americans reported that their sleep needs aren't met on weeknights. Similarly, a 2013 Gallup poll found that 40 percent of Americans sleep fewer than seven hours per night.
Our bodies pay a heavy price when we skimp on slumber to this extent, from an expanding waistline to an increased risk of heart disease. By the same token, though, getting enough sleep can work miracles for our health. Here are five health benefits of getting more sleep that may surprise you.
As far as memory goes, when you snooze, you win. While you may be out like a light, your brain is actually highly active while you sleep. The brain performs certain tasks during sleep that are critical to learning, memory, and cognition. Think of the brain like a secretary reviewing and organizing the files of an office at the end of the day.
In a process called consolidation, your brain sifts through the memories of the day as you sleep, deciding what to keep and what to discard. A study out of MIT theorizes that the brain replays the experiences of the day to convert short-term memories into long-term memories. Scientists believe that memories are temporarily stored in the hippocampus until we sleep, at which point the brain consolidates them in the neocortex for long-term storage.
When we allow the brain to perform this process fully, the result is a sharper memory. Studies have shown that people who get enough sleep do better on cognitive tests, from recalling new vocabulary words to accurately recognizing emotions in facial expressions.
From the immune system to the cardiovascular system, sleep helps us stay healthy. Sleep gives your body a chance to repair and restore itself, which helps its systems function at peak levels. On the other hand, sleep deprivation wreaks havoc on the body. In fact, some studies have found that up to 90 percent of people with insomnia also have another medical condition. Specifically, research has correlated sleep deprivation with:
- A compromised immune system
- Cardiovascular disease
- Heart attack
- Irregular heartbeat
Sleep deprivation also leads to an increased risk of car accidents. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), drowsy drivers cause more than 100,000 accidents and 1,550 fatalities every year.
Between the increased risk of physical illness and accidents, it's not surprising that sleep deprivation also shortens the lifespan. A 2010 study in the journal "Sleep" found that sleeping fewer than six hours per night makes you 12 percent more likely to die prematurely. Turning in early, on the other hand, helps you ward off sickness, lower the level of stress hormones your body releases, and live a longer, better-quality life.
Studies suggest that if you sleep more, you eat less. A study out of the Mayo Clinic found that sleep-deprived subjects ate an average of 549 calories more than well-rested participants the next day. The sleep-deprived subjects cut their normal sleep time by just one-third. So, for example, a person who usually sleeps nine hours slept only six.
The results of that study corroborate the findings of other research on the correlation between sleep deprivation and obesity. For instance, a 2002 study in the American Journal of Human Biology found that for each hour of sleep adolescents lost, their risk of obesity increase by 80 percent.
Interestingly, researchers have also found that the striatum and anterior cingulate cortex — both key areas in the brain’s motivation network — became hyperactive in sleep-deprived people at the sight of food. The same phenomenon occurs in addicts when they see pictures of their drug of choice. The researchers speculated that because calories are energy, the brain, on some level, knows that they will make you more alert.
The bright side of all this is that adequate sleep promotes a healthy weight. People who get enough sleep experience less hunger and show more restraint in their eating than the sleep-deprived.
In addition to regulating our physical health, sleep helps stabilize our emotional health. Anyone who has experienced the next-day crankiness of a poor night's sleep can attest to this. What's more, the longer the sleep deprivation goes on, the more deleterious its effect on emotion.
Sleeps seems to have a protective effect on emotional health, brightening mood and regulating emotions. A study in the journal "Sleep" found that people who slept seven to nine hours per night showed fewer symptoms of depression than those who slept less or more.
Because depression and insomnia often lead to a vicious cycle — depression causes insomnia, which in turn causes depression — sleep deprivation is also a risk factor for suicide. Additionally, sleep-deprived people have a diminished ability to process negative emotions.
But why? This dysregulation phenomenon is possibly due to an overreaction to emotional stimuli that occurs in the sleep-deprived brain. A study published in "Current Biology" found that the amygdala, the area of the brain that processes emotions, was 60 percent more reactive in the sleep-deprived brain to emotionally disturbing images. When the amygdala goes into overdrive like this, it shuts down the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with logical reasoning. The amygdala then activates the locus coeruleus, which initiates a fight-or-flight response by releasing noradrenaline.
The takeaway is that the better-rested you are, the better your mood tends to be. You’ll experience fewer symptoms of depression and generally have more control over your emotions.
Sleep deprivation is a notorious libido killer. Both men and women who are sleep-deprived report less interest in sex. The decrease in desire may have something to do with the increased stress and fatigue sleep deprivation causes. For men, though, studies suggest that something else is going on as well.
Researchers have found that sleep-deprived men have lower levels of testosterone, which in turn negatively affect their sex drive. For example, a study in the "Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism" found that men with sleep apnea, a breathing issue that disturbs sleep, have low testosterone levels.
So, it seems that the key to a more satisfying experience in the bedroom is to spend more time in the bedroom…sleeping, that is.
How to Get Better (and More) Sleep
Now that you know everything that sleep can do for your body and well-being, the next step is to get more of it. Both the quality and quantity of sleep you get can affect your health, so the following tips explain how to improve both.
- Develop a relaxing bedtime routine. Don't make the mistake of lying in bed thinking of all the things you have to do tomorrow before you fall asleep. The more relaxed you are, the faster you'll fall asleep and the better your sleep will be. Try unwinding for at least 10 minutes before bed with soft music, deep breathing, or soothing aromatherapy, for example. You might also take sleep supplements to help aid relaxation.
- Go off the grid. The light emitted from your smartphone, tablet, TV, or even your bedside digital clock can disturb your circadian rhythms, which rely on light to cue wakefulness. To avoid tricking your body into thinking it’s daytime, avoid screen time one hour before bed.
- Set an alarm (to go to sleep). Setting an alarm at night to remind yourself to go to bed can help you stay on track with your commitment to get more sleep. Try setting the alarm for a few minutes before your ideal bedtime to allow for your relaxation ritual.
- Cool it. While it may seem counterintuitive, research from the Swiss Center for Chronobiology suggests that the ideal sleeping temperature is around 65 degrees. Scientists discovered that a drop in core temperature cues the body to induce sleep.
- Aim for just a little noise. Certain noises, such as clocks ticking or loud electronics, can disrupt or even prevent sleep. Although you want to stop nuisance noises like those, making it too quiet may disturb your sleep as well. Too much silence makes little bumps and creaks all the more detectable. Try using a white noise machine for a compromise.
- Ban your furry friends. As much as you may enjoy cuddling with your dog or cat in bed, pets make bad bedfellows for people trying to get quality sleep. Pets scratch, snore, kick, and have other nocturnal behaviors that are disruptive to your sleep. Their dander on the sheets also spells trouble for those with asthma or allergies.
Whether your goal is to improve your memory, your love life, or your overall health, getting more sleep can help you achieve it. Practicing these sleep hygiene tips and taking sleep supplements from Zenwise will help you sleep longer and better, which, as you’ve seen, can work wonders for your well-being.