Getting a good night’s sleep is important. We know this. And we’ve known this our entire life. No one ever said, or believes, that sleeping less is better for you.
But when we think of getting a good night’s sleep, we often think of feeling awake, energized, and able to concentrate. And these are tremendous benefits of sleeping well. But they’re not the only sleep benefits.
What we may not realize is just how much our health and wellness benefits from quality sleep. Sleep is a restorative process, and quality sleep is vital to a long, healthy life.
The same is, unfortunately, true in reverse. Poor quality sleep can be destructive, worsening our health and potentially shortening our lifespan.
So today I’m going over the top 6 health and wellness sleep benefits to illustrate the importance of sleep.
1. Improved Memory
I realize that improving our memory isn’t a direct health and wellness benefit, but it’s a major sleep benefit. And if you’ve ever become frustrated or stressed because you can’t remember something, then I’d argue this could turn into a wellness benefit.
Furthermore, creating and retrieving memories is a crucial part of the adaptive process. From an evolutionary standpoint, this skill was vital to survival. For example, the ability to remember the location of a food source, or the location of danger, could be the difference between life and death.
Even in our modern world, creating and retrieving memories is part of the learning process. Learning a new skill, studying in a class, or even remembering how to get home are because of our ability to create, store, and retrieve memories.
When we sleep, we allow our brain to store memories for later retrieval. Think of your brain like computer hard drives. During the day, we accumulate many potential long-term memories. These memories are stored in the short-term in the hippocampus, much like the main hard drive of your computer. The hippocampus, like your main hard drive, has limited storage space.
At night when we sleep, our brain transfers these memories to the cerebral cortex, our brain’s external hard drive. This process determines, with high accuracy, which memories need to be stored for the long-term. This process also frees-up the hippocampus to receive new memories the next day.
If we don’t sleep (or if we don’t achieve enough REM sleep, when this process mostly occurs), we become incapable of retaining new memories. The hippocampus has limited space, and when it’s full, it’s full. Sleep allows our brain’s memory banks to properly store memories for future recall.
2. Lower Blood Pressure
We’ve discussed many times before how we need to relax and calm down before bed. But what we may not realize is that sleep itself is calming for our body.
Have you ever experienced waking up from very little sleep the night before? Or how about waking up from a nap that lasted just a little too long? And when you woke up, did you feel your heart racing?
If you felt your heart racing, you experienced one of the negatives of poor sleep. Sleep destresses our body in many ways, but of particular note is our blood pressure.
Do not try this at home, but imagine putting a tourniquet around your arm. Your veins will begin to swell from the immense pressure on your arm preventing proper blood circulation. This is exactly what happens to our blood pressure when we don’t sleep.
In this case, sleep acts like a pressure release valve. Our blood pressure subtly rises naturally throughout the day. When we sleep, this pressure is released. But when we don’t sleep, our blood pressure keeps building.
So quality sleep is a natural way to reduce blood pressure. This means people who achieve regular quality sleep are at less risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, and other cardiovascular issues.
As a way to really illustrate this point, hospitals treat an increased number of heart attacks the day after daylight savings time begins (moving the clock forward), and hospitals treat a decreased number of heart attacks the day after daylight savings time ends (moving the clock backward).
3. Increased Fertility
This benefit may speak more loudly to men than women, but it’s important for both sexes. Reproduction is one of the basic functions of existence. Of course, today we choose whether we want to reproduce. But throughout our evolution, reproduction has been necessary for long-term species survival, as well as the passing down of genetically favorable traits.
But whether or not you choose to have children, increased fertility is a good thing. This can give you higher energy levels, and that’s certainly a benefit regardless of reproduction.
Research has shown that men who do not get regular quality sleep suffer from a much higher deformed sperm count. Additionally, these men tend to have smaller testicles. Particularly regarding deformed sperm, this does not place you high on the evolutionary reproductive totem pole.
And for women, poor sleep quality can also impact fertility. A woman’s eggs may be less ready to accept fertilization when sleep deprived. Of much greater consequence, however, is the potential inability to successfully birth a child. Pregnant women who do not get enough sleep, especially during the first trimester, are at a much higher risk of suffering a miscarriage.
4. Boosted Immune System
The phrase “boost your immune system” often elicits many eye rolls from the scientific and health communities. This is because we don’t exactly “boost” our immune system. Instead, we keep it healthy and ready to fight infection at a moment’s notice.
Sleep is the most natural, effective way to keep our immune system at peak performance.
Think back to the last time you slept poorly for at least a few days in a row. It doesn’t matter why you slept poorly, whether it be stress or some other factor. Now think back to the last time you caught a cold. Did your sickness immediately follow this period of poor sleep?
When we aren’t well rested, our body is less capable of fighting-off infection. In fact, our body may be fighting-off a cold for several days behind the scenes until our sleep quality diminishes for a period and our immune system is no longer capable of fighting the infection.
Similarly, getting plenty of sleep is one of the best ways to get over a cold. Our body needs as much rest as possible when we’re sick. This gives our immune system a proper chance of fighting the infection and restoring its abilities to full power.
5. Increased Mental Health
Our mental health is just as important as our physical health. And the two are inextricably linked. When one suffers, the other suffers too.
Remember, sleep is our body and mind’s way of resetting itself. Physical and psychological tension build-up throughout the day, only to be released by sleep. So sleep is our natural reset button, and this is especially true for our emotions.
One of the reasons humans are so unique from all other species is our highly skilled ability to decipher emotions, especially through visual cues. In fact, a large portion of our brain is dedicated to the interpretation of visual stimuli. This is also one of the last areas of the brain to mature through adolescence, which is why teenagers are often very bad at deciphering emotional cues.
But the same happens when we are tired. When we don’t get quality sleep, our brain perceives more emotions negatively, and often incorrectly. For example, a seemingly blank, non-responsive facial expression may seem angry or dismissive when we’re tired, even if the person is showing no emotion at all.
And consistent sleep deprivation can lead to a serious mental health problem. If our brain can’t reset its emotional centers, our brain may lose some of its emotional-deciphering capabilities.
For this reason, many people who have a mental health disorder, especially bipolar disorder, suffer from poor sleep. Their brain is less capable of deciphering and controlling emotions, and this can create, or aggravate, a mental health problem. And most people with a psychological disorder are often prescribed to sleep more, as sleep is a great way to lessen their symptoms.
6. Improved Metabolism
Yes, it’s possible that getting quality sleep can help you lose a few pounds. And this specifically happens because of two hormones our body releases related to metabolism: leptin and ghrelin.
Leptin is the hormone that tells our brain we are full and don’t need more food. Ghrelin is the hormone that tells our brain we’re hungry and need to eat.
When we don’t get enough sleep, our brain releases more ghrelin and decreases leptin. This means we feel hungrier when we are tired, and therefore are more likely to snack. If this happens consistently, weight gain is certainly possible.
And even though our metabolism decreases when we sleep, our metabolism is still at work throughout the night. One study found that participants who exercise regularly and get quality sleep lose weight primarily from fat. On the other hand, participants who exercise regularly but do not get quality sleep lose weight primarily from lean muscle.
So even though both groups of participants technically lost weight, losing lean muscle is not ideal. Achieving quality sleep can help our body remove fat while maintain muscle mass.
These 6 health and wellness sleep benefits can make a huge difference on our quality of life. And, of course, this short post only scratches the surface of just how important quality sleep is on our health.
And beyond these 6 benefits, there are certainly many more. But it’s important we understand just how important sleep is to our total health. The sooner we respect our need for quality sleep, the healthier we’ll be.
Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, PhD
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