Did you get a good night’s sleep last night?
For many of us, a solid night of sleep is a fantasy. Sleep is a foundational aspect of wellness, both physical and mental, but it’s often overlooked at the expense of our health.
Think about how you feel when you get 8 plus hours of sleep versus how you feel when you get only a few hours. When you’re well rested, it’s easier to focus, make decisions, and think critically. When you’re exhausted, you might struggle with brain fog, be more irritable, and even get sick more frequently.
Why is sleep is important for your health
There’s a reason it feels so good to get a good night of sleep. Sleep is an essential biological function that lets our bodies and brains recover and maintain themselves so we can get through the day.
Unfortunately, the emphasis that our culture places on productivity often means that sleep takes a backseat, even for people who are otherwise concerned with their health. We have a cultural idea that rest has to be earned, when in fact rest is necessary for life. Sleep is as important to our survival as getting enough food and water, and not getting enough sleep can have serious, even deadly, consequences.
What sleep does for your body
Sleep is thought to be one of the major ways that we conserve energy. It would take a lot of energy to be awake all of the time, so sleep gives our bodies a chance to slow down a bit. This is why metabolic rates tend to drop during sleep – your body just doesn’t have to work as hard when you’re asleep.
Sleep also lets the body restore and repair itself. When you’re asleep, your body goes through important processes like repairing muscles, releasing hormones, synthesizing proteins, and growing tissues. These functions often occur during the deepest stages of sleep, so when you don’t sleep for long enough to get to deep sleep, your body isn’t able to complete those processes. Without these functions, our bodies can’t function optimally. The hormones produced during sleep are used throughout the body, including in your cardiac system. Without these hormones, heart function can worsen and even lead to heart disease.
What sleep does for your brain
Sleep is equally important for the body and the brain. Sleep gives your brain a chance to process the information you’ve taken in while awake. This can be new things you’ve learned or new memories you made. Studies show that our brains are pretty active during sleep, and that different parts are active during different stages of sleep. Each stage of sleep is important for our brains, and it’s important to reach each stage of sleep so you can get the most out of your sleep. Without sleep, it’s hard to pay attention and multitasking can become impossible. This can be dangerous – think about driving when you’re really tired. It’s a lot harder to focus and react when you’re not well rested, right?
Have you ever been struggling with something, only to get a good night’s sleep and then find your solution?
Sleep helps our brains sift through the information we take in, make connections between what’s important, and get rid of the rest. That’s part of why sleep boosts creativity. It’s easier to be creative when you can focus and think critically.
Sleep is also important in removing waste from the brain, like toxins in your cerebrospinal fluid, which can impact your cognitive functioning. Some studies have even shown that the waste products that are removed during sleep are the same proteins that are a precursor to the plaques that build up in diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s.
What are the consequences of lack of sleep?
If you’ve ever been chronically exhausted, you probably know that it has a big impact on your mood, which can also affect your relationships. Lack of sleep can lead to major irritability and mood swings, because it’s harder to process emotions when you’re tired.
As you can imagine, lack of sleep makes it much harder to concentrate and to think. Our memories suffer when we don’t get enough sleep. During sleep, our brains process and encode our memories, so when we don’t get enough sleep it might be hard to remember things. It can also be harder to recall what you’ve learned, because your brain hasn’t had time to process it without sleep. Chronic sleep deprivation can even lead to dementia because it prevents our brains from functioning properly.
When people are deprived of sleep over long periods of time, like after years of shift work, their health often suffers.
Sleep is important for our immune functioning, so people who are chronically tired tend to get sick more often than those who sleep well.
You might notice that your balance suffers when you’re tired. Lack of sleep can lead to what’s called postural instability, or short term balance problems. Balance issues can lead to injuries and limit your mobility.
Without enough sleep, your body can’t repair itself. It might be hard to notice this on a daily basis, but you might notice that it takes you longer to heal from injury or illness when you’re not sleeping well.
Why do so many of us sleep poorly?
There are so many reasons why sleep is difficult for people. Lots of people just don’t sleep well, and exploring the reasons why can help you come up with solutions. Here are just a few reasons why many people struggle to sleep well:
Anxiety and stress
Anxiety can have a major impact on sleep. The racing thoughts and rumination that often accompany anxiety can make it hard to feel relaxed enough to sleep. Anxiety can also put your body into a state of fight, flight, freeze, or fawn, which means your sympathetic nervous system is activated.
Your sympathetic nervous system is designed to protect you from danger by preparing you to either run away or defend yourself, and as you can imagine it’s hard to relax in this state. Getting your body back to a relaxed state requires activating your parasympathetic nervous system, which is what calms you down after danger has passed. Deep breathing and mindfulness practices can help bring your parasympathetic nervous system online so you can relax.
Blue light from devices
Most of us spend a good chunk of our days looking at a screen, whether for work or to unwind after a long day. The blue light that comes from our devices like TVs, computers, tablets, and phones actually has an impact on our ability to sleep.
Caffeine and other substances
Some substances can interfere with sleep or make it harder to get quality sleep. Caffeine intake in the late afternoon or evening can make it harder to fall asleep. It’s tricky because many of us rely on caffeine to keep us awake since we don’t get good sleep, but caffeine can be part of the reason why sleep is so difficult. Alcohol and other drugs can also impact sleep by making it harder to sleep deeply or fall asleep.
Untreated sleep disorders
Sleep disorders are pretty common, but many people don’t realize they have one. There are quite a few types of sleep disorders, so talking about your quality of sleep with your primary care provider can help you find solutions. It might be helpful to get tested for sleep disorders like sleep apnea, insomnia, or restless legs syndrome.
Some medications interfere with sleep. They may make it harder to fall asleep or stay asleep, or increase the frequency with which you need to use the bathroom, which is a major sleep interrupter. Some medications might make you more restless at night, or give you gastrointestinal side effects that impact your sleep. Remember that sleep is an essential biological function, so if your medications are interfering with your sleep make sure to mention it to your primary care provider.
Shift work is a major reason why sleep is difficult for many people. Our bodies are generally used to being awake during the day and asleep at night, but shift workers often have to adjust the hours that they sleep so they can be rested enough for work. Overnight shifts that require workers to sleep during the day can take a major toll on mental and physical health. Getting enough sleep during the day can be difficult because of the way hormones are released during the day in your body, too much daylight, loud noises outside when you’re trying to sleep, needing to get things done during the day, and more.
Taking care of others, even those that you deeply love and care about, is tiring work. The people who need our help can’t always time their needs to coincide with your sleep schedule, and sleep is often sacrificed for caretakers of all kinds. It’s well known that parents, especially new parents, have to struggle with less sleep.
Some ways to improve your sleep quality
Thankfully, there are things that we can do to prioritize and improve our sleep. Here are some ideas to try to get you started.
- Sleep in a cool room
- Get your own comforter if you share a bed
- Get tested for sleep disorders
- You can often get tested at home, though wait lists for equipment can be long
- Turn on blue light filters on your electronic devices or avoid electronics after 8pm
- Try stopping any caffeine intake in the early afternoon
- Wear an eye mask to block out light and/or get blackout curtains to keep your room dark