It’s no secret that a lack of adequate sleep can make you grumpy. It can also cause a host of other issues related to your mental and physical health. In the United States, 68 percent, or over 164 million individuals, reported experiencing trouble sleeping at least once each week. This is a cause for concern. Sleep allows your body time to rest, recoup, and repair itself. And the long-term consequences of interrupted sleep may surface in a weakened immune system, heightened risk of diabetes, heart disease, dementia, obesity, and a host of severe conditions. Not to mention, a lack of sleep can cause hallucinations, mood, and personality changes.
In 1959, radio personality Peter Tripp decided to host a continuous 201-hour broadcast to raise money for a children’s foundation. After just three days, however, the plan took a turn for the worse when Peter started having vivid hallucinations and began to lose his temper, cursing at people in the streets. Surprisingly, Peter made it to the end of the 201 hours, after which he slept for extended periods to recover. Still, close friends and family reported permanent changes in Peter’s personality, and he eventually got divorced and lost his radio job. This shift in mood is not unheard of. Studies have shown that sleep-deprived individuals are more irritable, become easily frustrated or angered, and can experience frequent waves of sadness or depression.
Why does better sleep lead to better health? Let’s break down what happens when we sleep, the benefits of healthy sleep, and how to sleep better.
What Happens When We Sleep?
Sleeping has four measurable stages that support critical biological and therapeutic functions. Stage one is the dozing-off stage, which typically lasts one to five minutes. As the body relaxes, the autonomic nervous system transitions from the sympathetic state to the parasympathetic state. In stage two, the body functions in a state of relaxation in which the core body temperature lowers, breathing becomes slower, and heart rate decreases. Stage three is the final stage before we enter the rapid eye movement (REM) cycle. In this third stage, muscle tone, pulse, and breathing rate decrease while the body experiences further relaxation. This state of deep sleep contributes to insightful thinking, creativity, and the development of long-term memories. And during this stage, information gathered during the day is processed and stored for future recollection.
Finally, we enter REM sleep, when brain activity increases. The body becomes temporarily paralyzed. Eye movement is rapid, and the muscles that control breathing are active. REM sleep is essential to support cognitive functions like memory, learning, and creativity. During REM sleep, vivid dreams occur. REM sleep allows the brain and body to restore and rejuvenate. According to the CDC, seven hours of sleep every night is the minimum recommended amount for adults ages 18 to 65 to sustain comprehensive health benefits.
What Are the Benefits of Healthy Sleep?
Healthy sleep is essential for our mental and physical well-being. Adequate sleep supports healthy brain function and emotional stability throughout our waking hours, and it allows for better memory recognition and a sharper focus during the day. It also controls our weight by minimizing the production of ghrelin, an appetite-inducing hormone, and leptin, a hormone that increases the body’s feeling of fullness. During sleep, our body’s cells have time to restore themselves, conserve energy, and fight infection.
Have you ever gone to bed with a headache, nausea, or fever but felt better in the morning? That is no coincidence. While we rest, our bodies have time to repair themselves. Sleep promotes healing, as our body turns into a hormone factory of sorts, releasing hormones to fix what’s broken. Finally, the brain requires less glucose, the primary source of energy, while asleep, thus regulating blood sugar and keeping us balanced.
How to Sleep Better
There are many ways to practice better sleeping habits. From reducing naps during the day to exercising and avoiding food, caffeine, and alcohol in the evenings, the key is to stay consistent and to set the foundation for success at bedtime. Here are a few tips:
- Get on a regular schedule: Humans thrive in routine. We are creatures of habit, and setting a consistent bedtime routine is the perfect way to kick off your evening. Consider taking a warm shower or bath, turning off your electronics, and reading a book. This will help you to relax and unwind, better prepare your mind to shut off, and reduce the risk of insomnia or difficulty sleeping.
- Reduce blue light exposure in the evening: Your smartphone, computer, and other devices emit blue light. This tricks your mind into thinking it’s daytime, reducing the release of melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone. Consider shutting off your electronics at least an hour before bed, wear glasses that block the blue light, or put your device in night mode.
- Relax and clear your mind: Stress can cause insomnia, rapid breathing, and the inability to relax. But it is essential to find ways to unwind and settle down for the evening. Consider stretching or practicing meditation before bed. Breathing exercises are another excellent way to focus your mind and body, check-in with yourself, and create a safe and positive environment for sleep.
The value of a good night’s sleep cannot be understated. From better memory recognition and a sharper focus during the day to weight control and allowing the body time to restore itself, conserve energy, and fight infection, the benefits are massive. If you or someone you know struggles with a sleep-related disorder, such as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), consider implementing the tips above and talk to your primary care provider (PCP) or a dentist specializing in sleep and airway. They are excellent resources to help you maintain your optimal mental and physical health.