Everyone knows that a good night’s sleep is important. But just how important is it? Quality and quantity of sleep has a huge effect on many facets of life and if a person doesn’t get enough sleep it is very hard to stay healthy. Insufficient sleep can lead to poor cognitive function, depression, anxiety, difficulty with judgment and decision-making, inappropriate daytime sleepiness, increased inflammation, higher mortality, poor respiratory function, and even obesity. There are many factors that affect sleep and it is definitely something that anyone looking to be their best needs to optimize.
There are two dimensions to sleep – quantity and quality. Both of these matter a great deal. While we don’t really know the ideal amount of sleep each individual needs, it seems that most adults need an average of about 8 hours of good restful sleep nightly. Some people can function well on less and some require more. The best way to know is to monitor function on differing amounts of sleep. Unfortunately, many people don’t get good quality sleep. Just being in bed for 8 hours does not guarantee good quality sleep. Many people are awakened multiple times in a night. This might be due to needing to go to the bathroom, noises, or even sleep disruptions that are so mild a person doesn’t even remember awakening. So many people are awakened by snoring or apnea and don’t even realize it until they notice it during a sleep study.
Sleep deprived individuals take significantly longer to respond to cognitive stimuli. Just a few hours of sleep deprivation over one or two nights can have a big effect on even the simplest of tasks. A couple of nights of sleep deprivation can make complex tasks even harder and this means more mistakes occur. Luckily it seems that having good sleep prior to a few nights of poor sleep has some protective effect on that loss of function, so making it a habit to get good sleep most of the time may help you to function better when you aren’t able to get good sleep.
People who are short on sleep behave as if they are depressed or anxious. They also report irritability, low libido, and poor judgment. Decision making is very difficult. Maintaining good attention is hard too. Even with the best attempts to pay attention, people who are sleep deprived have a hard time staying awake when required to do so. Similarly, errors and accidents in the workplace are much more common in those who are not getting adequate sleep, especially in those who work shift work or have long commutes to work.
Inadequate sleep is strongly associated with cardiovascular disease. The exact mechanism of this effect is not known, but it is thought to be due to higher levels of inflammation. People who do not get adequate sleep have a higher incidence of high blood pressure, heart rhythm problems, etc. In addition to these issues, lack of sleep can affect a person’s ability to fight off infections.
There is definitely an association between sleep deprivation and obesity. It is very important to get quality sleep if you are trying to lose weight or even maintain weight. Just by getting 4-5 hours of sleep instead of 7-8 makes blood sugar control up to 40% worse. Without adequate sleep, the body has much more insulin resistance, which stops fat burning and increases fat storage. Getting poor sleep also raises cortisol levels. This contributes to poor food decision-making and increases a hormone called ghrelin with increases hunger and slows metabolism. If weight loss or maintenance is your goal, don’t let insufficient sleep be the reason you are not successful!
How can you improve your sleep in today’s busy world? It is important to maintain a good sleep schedule where you go to bed and wake up at approximately the same time, even on weekends. It is also helpful to practice a bedtime routine for a few minutes before trying to go to sleep so your body can wind down and prepare. Exercise daily. If you have trouble sleeping, avoid naps. Wind down before bed by doing something quiet and avoid the use of phones or other electronics before bed. It also helps to avoid heavy meals, caffeine, and alcohol before bed. Maintaining a good sleep environment with a comfortable bed and pillows, a dark environment , and white noise or silence can be important as well. If you are struggling with sleep, don’t be afraid to tell your physician.