THE BENEFITS OF A GOOD NIGHT’S SLEEP
You know you need to aim for at least seven hours of quality sleep every night for optimal health, and as we discussed in myprevious article, the consequences of failing to hit this target can be severe. Today, we’re going to talk about the flip side — the many, many health benefits of getting enough sleep.
We tend to think of sleep as a time of rest, but it’s so much more. The many processes that take place throughout your body during the night are essential for good health and longevity. In fact, research has shown that good sleep is directly linked to an increased lifespan and a lower risk of almost every major chronic disease, including heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
Let’s talk about exactly what happens when you get a good night’s rest on a regular basis.
Healthy insulin function
Cortisol and insulin naturally act in opposition to each other, with cortisol inhibiting the effects of insulin. By maintaining a healthy, consistent sleep/wake cycle, you keep your cortisol and insulin balanced throughout the 24-hour day, which in turn supports healthy digestion and metabolism.
When you’re sleeping well, your cells also have a chance to recover from daily insulin exposure and retain their sensitivity. This helps to prevent insulin resistance and dramatically reduces your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
By stabilizing your cortisol and insulin function, good sleep can also help your weight loss efforts.
Energy crashes and unhealthy cravings often happen when insulin-resistant cells can’t take in the glucose from your blood, throwing your appetite-regulating hormones completely out of balance. When your cells retain their sensitivity to insulin, this doesn’t happen, helping you to maintain healthy eating habits.
Cortisol can also trigger cravings for high-fat and high-sugar foods, while insulin prevents your body from burning its fat stores. When both are regulated by good sleep, you’ll find you experience far fewer cravings, and you’ll find it much easier to lose weight.
The heart works incredibly hard throughout the day, so the night-time rest period is essential for good heart health.
Deep sleep slows down your heart rate, lowers your blood pressure, and gives your entire cardiovascular system the chance to recover from the demands of the day. Over the long term, this protects you from high blood pressure, heart disease, heart attack and stroke.
Serotonin and dopamine are essential chemicals for regulating your mood and maintaining good mental health. These are closely tied to melatonin and cortisol function, which work together to control the sleep/wake cycle.
When you’re getting quality sleep, your balanced cortisol and melatonin cycles create a positive knock-on effect around the body, supporting the proper function of these essential mood hormones. As well as promoting a general sense of wellbeing and happiness, this reduces your risk of developing mental health problems like depression and anxiety.
Sleep deprivation and stress reinforce each other and create a cycle that can be difficult to break.
Good sleep health helps to naturally control your cortisol levels, reducing stress and making it easier to fall (and stay) asleep. This in turn leaves you feeling more rested the next day, making it easier to cope with stress and reducing its associated effects — anxiety, food cravings, irritability, poor focus and, of course, sleeplessness.
During the day, your brain is constantly receiving sensory input, gathering information from your surroundings, and co-ordinating your responses. This is not necessary during sleep, giving your brain the chance to recover from a demanding day.
In the deep sleep phase, your brain clears out neurotoxins and cellular waste, ’trims’ away unused neural pathways, and strengthens important ones. Just one night of quality sleep can increase your ability to solve complex problems by as much as 50%, and you’ll also see an improvement in mental clarity, concentration, focus, mood, learning ability and creativity.
Good sleep is also essential for your memory, as you’ll know if you’ve experienced ‘brain fog’ after a sleepless night.
Deep sleep is when your brain sorts through the day’s information, discarding anything irrelevant and transferring anything important to your long-term memory. This process is known as consolidation and it only happens during the deep sleep stage. That means that when you’re getting lots of deep, quality sleep, your memory will be sharper and you’ll be able to quickly recall important information.
Throughout the night, your body repairs damaged muscle, builds new muscle tissue, and replenishes energy stores used during the day. Ensuring you get plenty of deep sleep can make your muscles healthier and more efficient, while boosting your lean muscle mass and athletic performance.
As a bonus, muscle tissue is metabolically active, which means it burns calories to sustain itself. By helping to build more muscle, good sleep indirectly helps you to burn more calories, lose body fat and maintain a healthy weight.
T cells are an integral part of your immune system’s response to infection. Some T cells recognize and fight foreign bodies you’ve encountered before, while others create proteins called cytokines, which protect against necrosis (tissue death), boost cell immunity, and stimulate infection-fighting antibodies.
Research has found that after a good night’s sleep, your T cells appear to function much more efficiently, enhancing your protection against harmful bacteria and viruses.
Good sleep also helps you to heal from injury and illness quicker, has a protective effect against autoimmune disorders, and is even shown to increase levels of proteins that guard against certain cancers.
Too little (or too much) sleep has been shown to raise levels of inflammatory markers like C-reactive proteins in the body.
These proteins are part of your normal immune response, but they can be harmful in excess. Getting around seven or eight hours of quality sleep a night can keep them at healthy levels, reducing your risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, digestive dysfunction, chronic pain and autoimmune disorders.
During deep sleep, you release a powerful chemical called Human Growth Hormone (HGH). This hormone drives cellular health via the use of amino acids, or proteins, which are known as the building blocks of the body. They’re used to create and maintain cells, build muscle, repair damaged tissue, and heal injuries, among many essential functions.
During the day, your liver is busy supporting your digestion and metabolism. When you sleep, its main role is to clear the body of all the toxins that have built up throughout the day.
Your liver does this very efficiently, but only when you’re in a deep, restful sleep. Getting a solid seven hours gives your liver plenty of time to detoxify, supporting healthy cellular function. This is especially important in the brain, which is extra-vulnerable to toxic build-up.
Improved sex life
When you’re sleep-deprived, your sex life is often one of the first things to suffer. Quality sleep keeps levels of the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen stable, helping to maintain your libido and prevent sexual problems like erectile dysfunction. In turn, a healthy sex life can reduce stress and boost both your physical and mental wellbeing.
You’ve heard the old expression about “getting your beauty sleep”, and it turns out this is rooted in science.
Like every cell in the body, the skin cells need deep sleep to repair and regenerate. Those who get seven hours of quality sleep a night show fewer signs of aging, and they’re less likely to suffer from skin complaints like breakouts, dryness and even acne.
As you can see, there’s not a single part of your body that doesn’t benefit from a great night’s sleep. It’s one of the most fundamental, effective ways to improve your overall health and, let’s be honest, it’s one of the most enjoyable!