How significant is good sleep?

Feet of a person lying in bed

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A colleague recently came to work looking the worse for wear. She’d had two successive nights of disturbed sleep, was exhausted and unable to focus or settle into her work day. That’s manageable when it happens occasionally, but getting enough sleep is vital to our well-being in surprising ways.

Why do we sleep?
Apparently scientists don’t really know why we need sleep. There are various theories though. These include:

  • Inactivity theory – suggests that inactivity meets a survival function – keeping organisms out of harm’s way.
  • Energy conservation theory – sleep serves to reduce energy demand and expenditure during part of the day or night. During sleep, energy metabolism is significantly reduced – by up to 10 % in humans.
  • Restorative theory – sleep “restores” what is lost while we are awake. It provides an opportunity for the body to repair and rejuvenate itself.  Research shows that when animals are deprived entirely of sleep, they lose all immune function and die in a matter of weeks. Many major restorative functions in the body occur mostly (or only), when we sleep like muscle growth, tissue repair, protein synthesis and growth hormone release.
  • Brain plasticity theory – recent ideas relating to changes in brain structure and organisation during sleep. Called brain plasticity, this theory connects sleep to brain development in infants and young children and the ability to learn and perform tasks in adults.

The benefits of sleep
Most people feel good after sleep. Aren’t the benefits self-evident then? Well, perhaps not. Did you realise the critical role it plays in immune function, metabolism, memory, learning, and other vital functions?

Here are some interesting findings

  • According to research conducted by the University of Chicago, well-rested dieters lose more fat in their weight loss—than sleep deprived dieters, who lose more muscle mass.
  • Sleeping after learning, help consolidate learning and memory.
  • Your brain appears to reorganize and restructure itself during sleep which may result in more creativity.
  • It seems that during sleep the emotional components of a memory strengthen, further enhancing the creative process.
  • Adequate sleep is important – too much or too little is associated with a shorter lifespan.
  • People who get less sleep eg six or fewer hours a night, have higher blood levels of inflammatory proteins than those who get more.
  • Athletes can improve performance with good sleep.
  • Sleep helps lower stress levels which influence blood pressure, cholesterol levels and cardiovascular health.
  • Sleeping well contributes to overall mental health and well-being by avoiding irritability, decreasing anxiety and enhancing emotional stability.

The dangers of insufficient sleep
Looking at the impact of insufficient sleep is important too. Consider these:

  • Fatigue has the highest frequency of causes of fatal single-car run-off-the-road accidents.
  • Sleeplessness affects reaction time and decision making.
  • Lack of sleep on a regular basis is associated with long-term health consequences, like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
  • Regularly sleeping more than nine hours a night is also associated with poor health.

Developing good sleep habits
There are a few surprises here for me – perhaps for you too? It certainly makes a case for thinking about developing and managing good sleep habits. Sleep can’t be caught up on or loaded up in credit for days ahead. Occasional blow-outs are manageable, but the benefits lie in routine and regularity of adequate sleep.

These include things like:

  • developing a routine for going to bed at the same time each night and rising each morning
  • developing some rituals or habits that lead into going to sleep, such as
    • reading in bed
    • short mindfulness/relaxation exercises
    • avoidance of violent films or TV shows just prior to bed
    • winding down from work or study before bed
  • avoiding watching TV or working in bed
  • use an alarm clock rather than a mobile phone to wake

Perhaps you have some ideas to add to these? Please share them below.

11 Surprising Health Benefits of Sleep


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