The Importance of Healthy Sleep

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Most of us perceive sleep as the one period of our day where our bodies, as well as our minds, are completely still and unmoving. When we sleep, we assume our bodies are completely at rest. This is partially true, as healthy sleep is an essential aspect of our rest and restoration processes. However, our brains remain active throughout our sleeping state. This active state is equally essential for brain function, to allow it to carry out the restorative and important processes that promote our overall health and wellbeing. Sleep impacts our mental and physical functions, our metabolism, and even our ability to fight diseases. This crucial function of our bodies and minds is regulated by an internal “body clock” operating on a 24-hour circadian rhythm cycle. This clock is responsible for informing us when we are tired or when we are refreshed and well-rested. The maintenance of our sleep cycle is important for health sleep and our overall health.

The physical effect of sleep is likely discernable to all of us, since we have all likely experienced the impact that a good night’s rest can have on our overall energy. Research has proven that healthy sleep is an indicator of physical health, and that it can ensure efficient brain functioning for physical activities. Adequate sleep is also associated with improved fine motor skills, reaction time, muscular power, and muscular endurance. However, there are some physical health impacts of healthy sleep that may not be as easily visible to the individual. For example, it is thought that sleep can influence your heart health. Lack of sleep is associated with increased risk and mortality from heart disease, as well as an increased risk for high blood pressure. Recent research has also found an association between lack of sleep and the development of Type 2 diabetes. This association suggests that sleep deprivation could be related to more physiological changes as well, like decreased insulin sensitivity, increased inflammation, hunger hormone changes, as well as behavioral changes. Sleep also plays a large role in our mental health. Sleep deprivation and chronic poor sleep is often associated with depression, anxiety, and other conditions. In the reverse of this, those experiencing anxiety and depression also often experience those mental health issues as barriers to healthy sleep.

The number of hours required for a healthy night’s sleep depends on the person and their age, something that is apparent to anyone that experiences a change in “bedtime” or “nap” requirements growing up. The average adult should get at least 7 hours of sleep a night for proper cognitive and behavioral functions. Sleep deprivation has been studied extensively in research, and findings have all suggested that sleep deprivation can result in attention lapses, reduced cognition, delayed reactions, and mood shifts. However, you could experience sleep deprivation and not be aware of your condition and its effects on your own body.  Research suggests that one can develop a tolerance to sleep deprivation that makes less sleep appear normal to the individual despite the physical and mental affects. Additionally, lack of sleep has been linked to a higher risk for certain diseases and medical conditions such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, poor mental health, and more.

Sleep deprivation can be a result of specific sleeping related conditions called sleep disorders. The most common sleep disorder is insomnia. Insomnia is characterized by repeated difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep, even despite efforts to have a proper sleep environments and time period. Insomnia can be short-term, creating sleep difficulties for a few weeks or a few months. Longer-term insomnia also exists and can lasts for three months or longer. Sleep apnea is another common sleep disorder where the upper airway becomes blocked during sleep. The resulting reduced or stopped airflow wakes people up during the night, a condition that is very dangerous.

Various things can impact sleep: sleep disorders, anxiety or depression, busy schedules, and more. The sleep-research community has also identified Daylight Saving Time as a potential threat to healthy sleep, since when our clocks are pushed forward, people lose one hour of sleep. This one-hour sleep loss is associated with significantly more motor vehicle accidents as well as cardiac events. Even in the instances where our clock moves backward, the extra hour of sleep disrupts our sleep patterns and can lead to negative health impacts. Due to this impact, public health researchers have called for the end of universal time changes. Another thing that sleep research is exploring as a barrier to healthy sleep is screen use right before bed. Evidence has shown that blue light emitted from digital devices can affect the secretion of melatonin. This hormone is essential for signaling to the body that it is time to fall asleep. Additionally, watching anxiety-producing content via devices can also impact your ability to fall asleep due to the emotional state it places you in.

Sleep research is ever expanding and growing our knowledge of the impacts and benefits of healthy sleep. The Emory University Sleep Consortium, also known as EUSleep, works to expand existing sleep research and education and outreach efforts. You can read more about this organization here.