Sleep – Why Does it Matter?

By Tara Daye, PTS/FIS

We all know that it is important to get adequate sleep but many of us do not get enough. Exactly what affect can this have on your body and its functions? You may be surprised at the number of things that a lack of sleep can affect!

Sleep helps your brain work optimally. While you’re sleeping, your brain is preparing for the next day. It’s forming new pathways during REM sleep to help you learn and remember information.

Studies have shown that a good night’s sleep helps improve your learning ability. Whether you’re studying for a test, learning how to play an instrument, how to perfect a tennis backhand, or how to drive a car, sleep helps enhance your learning and problem-solving skills. Sleep also helps you be attentive, make good decisions, and to be creative.

Sleep plays an important role in your physical health as well. For example, sleep is involved in the healing and repair of your muscles, heart and blood vessels. Ongoing sleep deficiency is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, and an increase in muscle soreness. Sleep deficiency also increases the risk of obesity. One study of teenagers showed that with each hour of sleep lost, the odds of gaining unwanted pounds went up.

Sleep deficiency increases the risk of obesity in other age groups as well. Sleep helps maintain a healthy balance of the hormones that make you feel hungry (ghrelin) or full (leptin). When you don’t get enough sleep, your level of ghrelin goes up and your level of leptin goes down. This makes you feel hungrier than when you’re well-rested.

Sleep also affects how your body reacts to insulin, the hormone that controls your blood sugar (glucose level). Sleep deficiency results in a higher than normal blood sugar level, which may increase your risk for diabetes.

In addition, sleep supports healthy growth and development. Deep sleep triggers the body to release the hormone that promotes normal growth in children and teens. This hormone also boosts muscle mass and helps repair cells and tissues in children, teens, and adults. Sleep also plays a role in puberty and fertility. Your immune system relies on sleep to stay at a healthy functioning level. Your immune system defends your body against bacteria and viruses, foreign, harmful or toxic substances. Ongoing sleep deficiency can change the way in which your immune system responds to these external factors. For example, if you’re deficient in sleep, you may have trouble fighting common infections.

Getting enough quality sleep at the right times for the right duration helps you function well throughout the day. People who are deficient in sleep are much less productive at work and school. They take longer to finish tasks, have a harder time concentrating and making decisions, have a slower reaction time, and make more mistakes. After several nights of losing sleep—even a loss of just 1–2 hours per night—your ability to function suffers as if you haven’t slept at all for a day or two. Not sleeping at all can have very serious health effects. After 3 or 4 nights without sleep you can begin to hallucinate, blood pressure will rise, you’ll feel dehydrated, cortisol levels will rise (the “stress” hormone), and you will begin to microsleep. Microsleep occurs when we are trying to fight sleep and our brain is trying to shut down while awake. Periods lasting from a few seconds up to 30 seconds can happen in which we “blank out” which can be very dangerous.

A common myth is that people can learn to get by on little sleep (such as less than 6 hours a night) with no adverse effects. Research suggests, however, that adults need at least 7–8 hours of sleep each night to be well rested. Recent surveys show the average adult now sleeps fewer than 7 hours a night. More than one-third of adults report daytime sleepiness so severe that it interferes with work, driving, and social functioning at least a few days each month.

Sleep is divided into two basic types: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep (with three different stages). Typically, sleep begins with non-REM sleep. In stage 1 non-REM sleep, you sleep lightly and can be awakened easily by noises or other disturbances. During this first stage of sleep, your eyes move slowly, your muscles relax, and your heart and breathing rates begin to slow. You then enter stage 2 non-REM sleep, which is defined by slower brain waves with occasional bursts of rapid waves. You spend about half the night in this stage. When you progress into stage 3 non-REM sleep, your brain waves become even slower, and the brain produces extremely slow waves almost exclusively (called Delta waves). You typically first enter REM sleep about an hour to an hour and a half after falling asleep. After that, the sleep stages repeat themselves continuously while you sleep. As you sleep, REM sleep time becomes longer, while time spent in stage 3 non-REM sleep becomes shorter. By the time you wake up, nearly all your sleep time has been spent in stages 1 and 2 of non-REM sleep and in REM sleep. If REM sleep is severely disrupted during one night, REM sleep time is typically longer than normal in subsequent nights until you catch up. Overall, almost one-half of your total sleep time is spent in stage 2 non-REM sleep and about one-fifth each in deep sleep (stage 3 of non-REM sleep) and REM sleep. In contrast, infants spend half or more of their total sleep time in REM sleep. Gradually, as they grow, the percentage of total sleep time they spend in REM continues to decrease, until it reaches the one-fifth level typical of later childhood and adulthood.

Here are some tips for getting a good night’s sleep:

Stick to a sleep schedule. Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. As creatures of habit, people have a hard time adjusting to changes in sleep patterns. Sleeping later on weekends won’t fully make up for a lack of sleep during the week and will make it harder to wake up early on Monday morning.

Exercise is great, but not too late in the day – it’ll wake up your body and mind. Try to exercise at least 30 minutes on most days but not later than 2–3 hours before your bedtime.

Avoid caffeine and nicotine. Coffee, soft drinks, certain teas, and chocolate contain the stimulant caffeine, and its effects can take as long as 8 hours to wear off fully. Therefore, a cup of coffee in the late afternoon can make it hard for you to fall asleep at night. Nicotine is also a stimulant, often causing smokers to sleep only very lightly. In addition, smokers often wake up too early in the morning because of nicotine withdrawal. Avoid alcoholic drinks before bed. Having a “nightcap” or alcoholic beverage before sleep may help you relax, but heavy use robs you of deep sleep and REM sleep, keeping you in the lighter stages of sleep. Heavy alcohol ingestion also may contribute to impairment in breathing at night. You also tend to wake up in the middle of the night when the effects of the alcohol have worn off.

Stay away from late night meals and beverages. A light snack is okay 2-3 hours before bedtime, but a large meal can cause indigestion that interferes with sleep. Drinking too many fluids at night can cause frequent awakenings to urinate. If possible, avoid medicines that delay or disrupt your sleep. Some commonly prescribed heart, blood pressure, or asthma medications, as well as some over-the-counter and herbal remedies for coughs, colds, or allergies, can disrupt sleep patterns. If you have trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor or pharmacist to see whether any drugs you’re taking might be contributing to your insomnia and ask whether they can be taken at other times during the day or early in the evening.

Don’t take naps after 3 p.m. Naps can help make up for lost sleep, but late afternoon naps can make it harder to fall asleep at night.

Make it a priority to relax before bed. Don’t over schedule your day so that no time is left for unwinding. A relaxing activity, such as reading or listening to music, should be part of your bedtime ritual. You can try taking a hot bath before bed. The drop in body temperature after getting out of the bath may help you feel sleepy, and the bath can help you relax your tired muscles and slow down so you’re more receptive to sleep.

Have a good sleeping environment. Get rid of anything in your bedroom that might distract you from sleep, such as noises, mess, bright lights, an uncomfortable bed, or warm/cold temperatures. You sleep better if the temperature in the room is kept just slightly on the cool side. A TV, cell phone, or tablet in the bedroom can be a distraction and deprive you of needed sleep due to the light from the screens which signals our brain that it is time to be awake rather than wind down and sleep.

Having the proper mattress and pillow can help promote a good night’s sleep by keeping you comfortable and promoting proper spinal alignment. Individuals who have insomnia often watch the clock. Turning the clock’s face out of view may help, so you are not inclined to worry about the time while trying to fall asleep.

Have the right sunlight exposure. Daylight plays a big part in regulating daily sleep patterns. Try to get outside in natural sunlight for at least 30 minutes each day. If possible, wake up with the sun each day or use very bright lights in the morning. Sleep experts recommend that, if you have problems falling asleep, you should get an hour of exposure to morning sunlight and turn down the lights before bedtime.

Don’t lie in bed awake tossing and turning. If you find yourself still awake after staying in bed for more than 20 minutes, or if you are starting to feel anxious or worried, get up and do some relaxing activity such as light Yoga, stretching or reading until you feel sleepy. The anxiety of not being able to sleep can make it harder to fall asleep.

See a doctor if you continue to have trouble sleeping. If you consistently find it difficult to fall or stay asleep and/ or feel tired or not well rested during the day despite spending enough time in bed at night, you may have a sleep disorder. Your family doctor or a sleep specialist should be able to help you, and it is important to rule out other health or psychiatric problems that may be disturbing your sleep.

Sleep Challenge: Complete your Sleep Diary for 1 week. After the week is through, analyze your Dairy to see if there are any positive changes you can make to your habits/bedtime routine.  

Posted in Fitness, sleeping, stress relief, wellness.