The relationship between sleep and overall physical health1 is well-documented. Sleep allows both the body and brain to recover during the night. A good night’s rest ensures you’ll feel refreshed and alert when you wake up in the morning.
Sleep deficiency will not only leave you feeling tired, but can increase your risk for a wide range of diseases and health problems2. These include obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke. A lack of sleep also poses a threat to your physical safety. Studies suggest up to 19% of U.S. adults don’t get enough sleep on a regular basis.
How Does Physical Activity Help You Sleep Better?
Sleep plays a vital role in your mental and physical wellbeing. Different processes that occur during sleep help to promote healthy brain activity and maintain good overall health. For children and teenagers, sleep is also key for proper growth and development.
Sleep deficiency can interfere with these bodily processes. The term “sleep deficiency” refers to the inability to get enough high-quality sleep. This may occur due to sleep deprivation, or simply not getting enough sleep, or there may be other underlying reasons, such as a sleep disorder or circadian rhythm misalignment. A lack of high-quality sleep means your body has less time to recover during the night. This can also lower your body’s defenses against diseases and medical conditions.
The effects of sleep deprivation on physical health include:
- Obesity: Studies have found sleep loss can increase your risk of becoming obese. Your body produces and regulates various hormones during sleep. These include ghrelin, which makes you feel hungry, and leptin, which makes you feel full. Lack of sleep can cause your ghrelin levels to increase and leptin levels to decrease, meaning you are more likely to feel excessively hungry and overeat.
- Heart Problems: Blood pressure is generally reduced during sleep. Thus, decreased sleep can lead to a higher daily average blood pressure, which in turn may increase your risk of heart disease and stroke. Inadequate sleep has also been linked to coronary artery calcification3, a major predictor for coronary heart disease.
- Insulin management: Insulin is a natural bodily hormone that regulates your glucose (or blood sugar) level. Sleep deprivation can affect how your body reacts to insulin and cause your glucose level to rise, which in turn puts you at higher risk for developing Type 2 diabetes4. Similarly, reduced sleep or poor sleep quality may adversely affect glucose control in known diabetics.
- Immunohealth: During sleep, there is a peak in the number of certain T-cells, various cytokines, and other important components of your immune system5. Not getting enough sleep can affect >how the immune system responds to viruses and other infections. Long-term reduction in sleep can also lead to persistent low-level inflammation throughout the body, which underlies many chronic medical conditions.
- Cognitive Performance: A good night’s sleep can improve your ability to concentrate, be creative, and learn new skills. People who don’t get enough rest often have a hard time paying attention and are more likely to commit errors at work or in school.
- Memory Consolidation: Sleep is essential for processing memories6. During the third non-rapid eye movement stage of your sleep cycle – also known as slow-wave sleep – your brain begins organizing and consolidating memories. The rapid eye movement stage that follows may help to cement these memories. As a result, not getting enough sleep can affect your ability to remember important details.
- Mood: People who don’t get enough sleep may have a harder time controlling their emotions, making good decisions, and coping with different aspects of daily life. Sleep deficiency can also lead to mental health issues, such as depression and increase one’s risk of suicide.
- Growth and Development: For children and adolescents, deep sleep triggers the release of hormones that promote healthy growth, increase muscle mass, regulate puberty and fertility, and repair cells and tissues. Children who don’t receive enough sleep may feel angry or sad, struggle with school work, and have a hard time engaging with their peers in positive ways.
- Safety: Drowsy driving7 is a major road hazard for U.S. drivers. Sleep deficiency can reduce one’s reaction time and lead to falling asleep behind the wheel. People who don’t get enough sleep are also at higher risk of being involved in a workplace accident.
The amount of sleep you need changes with age. Newborns and infants require as much as 15 to 17 hours of sleep per night, whereas teenagers can usually get by with eight to ten hours. Adults between the ages of 18 and 64 generally need seven to nine hours. After reaching 65, this amount drops slightly to seven or eight hours.
The Importance of Sleep Hygiene
Sleep hygiene is a catchall term for practices and behaviors that influence sleep quality and duration. It can include bedtime and wake-up routines, as well as your diet, physical activity, and other aspects of daily life.
Key components of good sleep hygiene include:
- Consistent Sleep Schedule: You should strive to go to bed and get up at the same times each day, including on the weekends and when you’re traveling. Many people find a consistent bedtime routine can help them get to bed on time.
- Prioritizing Sleep: Adequate sleep can be tough to juggle along with family life, work commitments, and socializing. However, you may need to occasionally forgo these activities in order to get enough rest.
- Responsible Napping: Napping during the day can greatly interfere with the amount of sleep you get at night. Limit your naps to the morning and early afternoon. You should also avoid napping for longer than 20 minutes8, as this can make you feel groggy and unfocused when you wake up.
- Relaxing Bedroom Environment: Think of your bedroom as a sleep sanctuary. You should take measures to maintain a sleep-friendly bedroom, such as blocking light with thick curtains, using a white noise machine or earplugs to drown out loud noises, and setting your bedroom thermostat to 60 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit (15.6 to 19.4 degrees Celsius), which many experts agree is the ideal temperature for sleep.
- Healthy Habits: Moderate exercise and a healthy diet can improve your sleep quality and help you sleep longer at night. People who have a hard time getting enough sleep should avoid smoking altogether, and also refrain from drinking alcohol or consuming caffeine in the hours leading up to bed. Dining late in the evening – especially large meals – can negatively impact sleep as well.
If you experience long-term sleep deficiency, you should consider scheduling an appointment with your doctor or another credentialed medical professional. Physicians can provide valuable insights about sleep health and hygiene and, if needed, perform tests to evaluate for a sleep disorder.