Sleep is essential to pretty much all aspects of our health, and can have all sorts of benefits.
Unfortunately, sleep is often the first thing to get sacrificed.
Whether you stay up late working on a paper or stressing over a presentation, or lose track of time on a late night phone call, or you have a baby and have forgotten what sleep even is….sleep tends to come last on the priority list.
However, while you can recover from a couple nights of lost sleep here and there, consistent sleep deprivation can be very harmful to the body.
Why is sleep so important? Let’s take a look at some of the benefits of sleep, including the short-term and long-term health consequences, as well as some helpful tips to sleep better at night.
10 Health Benefits of a Good Night’s Sleep
1. Mental clarity and learning
The most noticeable and immediate benefit of sleep may be mental clarity.
I’m sure you know how hard it is to be present and focused when you’re short on sleep and all you want to do is close your eyes and put your head down.
Adequate sleep is important for helping your:
- attention span
- problem-solving skills
- sound judgement
- accurate interpretation of events
This is why sleep plays such an important role in learning. When you are sleep deprived, your ability to receive and process information is impaired. A lack of sleep also means you are missing out on the memory consolidation that occurs during sleep.
2. Emotional intelligence
Sleep deficiency also impairs your ability to process emotional information.
Research has shown that sleep deficiency affects your ability to empathize with others, keep your emotions in check, and control your behaviour and reactions (1, 2).
This is especially true for children and adolescents. Without enough sleep, they may experience problems with:
- getting along with others
- mood swings
- lack of motivation
- paying attention
- low grades
3. Mental health
On a similar note, sleep is crucial for mental health; poor sleep may be linked to increased risk of mental health issues such as depression.
While the relationship between sleep and mental health is an ongoing topic of research, some studies show an association between sleep deficiency and depression and/or suicide.
One study showed that adults with sleep disorders such as insomnia or sleep apnea have an increased likelihood of depression (3).
Similar results linking poor sleep quality and increased risk of depression, have been found in adolescents (4).
4. Lower risk of obesity
Many studies report that short sleep duration is associated with elevated BMI, weight gain, and obesity/overweight (5).
The link between sleep deficiency and weight gain may be explained by:
- increased appetite due to changes in hunger hormones such as leptin and ghrelin
- increased caloric intake
- decreased energy expenditure
A study on adolescents found that insufficient sleep was associated with poor weight-related behaviours, such as increased consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, decreased vegetable consumption, and decreased physical activity (6).
5. Lower risk of diabetes
In addition to increased risk of obesity, many studies have linked poor sleep duration/quality to increased risk of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
One study found that the lowest risk of developing type 2 diabetes occurred at a sleep duration of 7-8 hours per day (7). Both shorter and longer sleep durations showed increased risk.
Another study found similar results – men sleeping less than 6 or more than 8 hours a night were 2 or 3x more likely to develop diabetes, respectively (8).
6. Lower risk of cardiovascular disease
Getting enough sleep may also be beneficial for your heart health.
Poor sleep (including both too-short and too-long sleep durations) is linked to cardiovascular diseases including high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, and stroke (9).
One study that included over 60,500 participants aged 40 and up, found that both poor sleep duration and poor sleep quality are associated with a significantly increased risk of coronary heart disease (10).
7. Lower risk of osteoporosis
Research also suggests that sufficient sleep may help delay or prevent osteoporosis.
A recent study found that short sleep duration was associated with lower bone mineral density and increased risk of osteoporosis (11).
In one study on middle-aged and elderly adults, both too-short and too-long sleep durations were shown to be associated with an increased risk of osteoporosis. The lowest risk of osteoporosis occurred at about 8 hours of sleep per day (12).
8. Stronger immune system
Sleep is tightly linked to the immune system.
Sleep is necessary for the body to rest, heal, and recover. When an immune response is triggered, an increase in sleep duration and intensity is often induced, for this very reason.
Adequate sleep is associated with a reduced risk of infection, improved outcome of infection, and improved vaccination response (13).
Sleep is thought to strengthen the immune system by inducing and regulating hormones.
Also, sleep helps keep inflammation in check by regulating inflammatory mediators such as cytokines.
Studies have shown that consistent short sleep duration is associated with increased inflammatory proteins and reduced activity of some immune cells.
Prolonged sleep deficiency can lead to constant low-level inflammation in the body, and increase risk of associated diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and neurodegeneration.
9. Improved athletic performance
Sleep is extremely important for athletes. Many researchers are looking into how to optimize athletic performance through sleep.
Sleep is the time for the body to recover and heal which is crucial for muscle repair and injury prevention. Getting plenty of sleep yields increased athletic energy, coordination, speed, and intensity.
There’s no doubt that not getting enough sleep can drastically increase your risk of injury.
A lack of sleep can impair your perception, judgement, and overall performance and abilities. This can result in increased risk of car accidents, falls and injuries (especially among the elderly), workplace errors, improper handling of hazardous equipment or materials, and other accidents caused by human error.
How to Sleep Better at Night
As someone who has a hard time falling asleep at night (and getting up early in the morning), I am always on the lookout for sleep tips and tricks.
Here are some practical tips to get a better night sleep, whether that’s falling asleep, sleeping uninterrupted, waking up refreshed, etc:
- Establish a consistent sleep schedule – going to bed and waking up at the same time every day will help your body fall into its circadian rhythm.
- Enhance your sleep/wake cues with light exposure
- decrease your blue light exposure at night (red light is better).
- open your curtains so you get the morning light to help wake you up in the morning.
- Create a restful environment, optimal for sleep
- keep your phone out of your room or turn it off at night (use an alarm clock instead of a phone alarm). The blue light from the screen, the mental stimulation of looking at it before bed, and the distracting notification sounds are not great for helping you fall asleep.
- don’t do any work on your bed or even in your bedroom.
- relax before bed – read, journal, etc.
- keep a slightly cool room temperature
- some herbal teas and scents can have a calming effect, such as chamomile or lavender
- Avoid caffeine before bed, and don’t eat right before bed
- Do physical activity during the day.
- Don’t take naps, except for perhaps a short, 20-minute power nap if necessary.
- Melatonin supplements may help, especially with schedule disruptors like jetlag.
- Weighted blankets may help with sleep disorders like insomnia.
Sleep can benefit all aspects of our health, including cognitive ability, mental and emotional health, disease risk, immune system function, athletic performance, and injury prevention. Optimize your sleep by establishing a regular circadian rhythm.
Let me know in the comments below if you liked this article on the importance and benefits of sleep, or have any questions!