I can’t even count the number of times I found myself crawling out of bed after getting only four or five hours of sleep. On those mornings, I’m chugging down many cups of coffee at my desk to keep myself awake, focused, and productive. After buying myself a brand-new mattress, an expensive gel-filled pillow, and a luxury comforter, I thought I would be jumping into bed at 10 pm each night ready to get a full eight hours of sleep.
I was wrong. I stare at my phone for hours most nights either answering work emails or ruminating over the day’s mishaps or tomorrow’s challenges. Sleep has become a luxury, not a necessity.
Sure, I know when I sleep well for eight or more hours a night, I feel sharper, stronger, and less irritable. But what I didn’t’ know is how essential sleep is for keeping just about every organ and biological process healthy and functioning. When the body produces enough of the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin, the body’s internal clock (i.e., circadian rhythm) stays regulated. Sleep-deprived professionals like myself can take melatonin supplements or invest in wearable sleep technology to get a better night’s rest.
How important is sleep? Sleep functions like the body’s own healing super power! Check out ten incredible ways the body heals and protects itself during sleep.
Protecting the Heart
Not getting enough sleep can negatively affect heart health. Studies show that a lack of sleep affects the body’s sympathetic nervous system, causing an overproduction of adrenaline (i.e., the “fight or flight” stress hormone). When the body is too revved up from adrenaline, the heart works harder to keep the body alert. This extra blood pumping can cause heart attacks, high cholesterol, stroke, coronary artery disease, and even congestive heart failure. These facts alone are enough for me to put down my cell phone and focus on sleep!
Keeping Bones Strong
Studies show that getting enough sleep is necessary for strengthening and protecting bones, as well as the connecting tendons, ligaments, and cartilage. Sleep helps safeguard the tissue inside bones, called bone marrow. This tissue contains health-sustaining stem cells that form the body’s immune cells.
One crucial part of the skeletal system, the spine, needs some stress relief at night to keep the back aligned and pain-free. That’s why it’s important to invest in a proper mattress that properly supports the curvature of the spine (Check!). As someone who spends most of her waking hours on her feet, I sometimes forget how much my spine works during the day.
Preserving Skin Health
Sleeping well at night keeps skin healthy, youthful, and vibrant. But sleep deprivation makes the body produce extra cortisol, the body’s stress hormone. High cortisol causes inflammation, which contributes to the breakdown of skin collagen. A reduction in collagen ages the skin (hello, wrinkles!). It’s important to get enough shut-eye to prevent those under-eye circles, swollen eyelids, and premature wrinkles. I embrace the aging process… But I don’t want to speed up it by choosing hours of TV watching over getting enough rest.
While the brain is busy making new memories, it might also be developing its creative muscle. In the stage between wakefulness and sleep, called hypnagogia, all sorts of strange things can occur, including lucid dreaming, sleep paralysis, and hallucinations. During this time, the brain tosses learned societal rules and conventions aside and is free to dream random images and thoughts. For those who are creatively-inclined, those vivid images and thoughts can help fuel creativity.
Sleep is essential for hormone regulation. Each hormone in the body serves an important purpose, such as telling the body when to sleep and when to wake up. When the body is awake, it’s what’s known as a “catabolic state.” In this state, the body is like a furnace, burning oxygen and food for energy. Hormones, adrenaline and corticosteroids fuel this process. When it’s time for sleep, the body increases its production of the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin.
During sleep, the body is in an “anabolic state,” in which the body conserves energy and repairs itself. In this wind-down renewal mode, the body makes a protein hormone called HGH, which repairs muscles and bones with amino acids. The body releases other hormones in the body during sleep, including the dream-influencing hormone, oxytocin, and ADH, which prevents the urge to pee during the night.
Maintaining a Healthy Weight & Metabolism
On days when I’m sleep-deprived, I crave more food – especially carbs. Sleep deprivation increases hunger by disrupting the balance between the appetite regulating hormones, ghrelin, and leptin (hormonal balance is important!). Ghrelin signals the body to eat while leptin tells the body it’s full. Leptin is a hormone that affects the feeling of fullness and satisfaction after a meal, and ghrelin is the hormone that stimulates appetite. Not getting enough sleep reduces the body’s level of leptin and increases ghrelin levels, which can lead to weight gain. Sleep deprivation can also lead to insulin resistance, which can increase the risk of diabetes.
Learning and Memorizing New Information
The brain stays active during sleep, by acquiring and consolidating new information. Learning how to play an instrument or speaking a new language forms new pathways in the brain. Those new paths become memories – information to recall later. During healthy sleep, the brain strengthens its problem-solving and decision-making skills. Now I know what people mean when they tell me to “sleep on it” before making an important decision!
Renewing and Repairing Brain Cells
The human brain is an amazing thing. Sleep allows the brain to rest, repair, and grow new cells. Each night, the brain removes toxins that are built up during waking hours to allow the brain to function normally the next day. Studies show that sleep helps the body reproduce cells that form myelin, the essential tissue that protects the brain and spinal cord from neurological diseases. Getting enough restful sleep is crucial to maintaining brain health.
Cleaning out the Eyes
Restful sleep is essential for eye health. That unsightly morning eye “crust” is a good thing; it means that the eyes are cleaning out dead cells, bacteria, and excess oil. The eyelids use tears to help ferry eye waste along. On a more serious note, a lack of sleep can lead to poor eye health, including blurred vision, dry and red eyes, light sensitivity, and even eye pain. Not to mention those annoying eye spasms that often follow a night or two of unrestful sleep!
Stabilizing Emotions and Mood
After a sleepless night, my tolerance for even mild annoyances is low. I feel stressed, irritable, and unable to think positively throughout the day. Studies show that not sleeping well can affect the ability to accurately read other people’s emotions, which can lead to conflict both at work and at home. Sleeping well stabilizes mood and neutralizes damaging negative emotions before they spill over into the next day.
Bottom line: A lot is going on in the body during sleep. Thus, getting a good night’s rest is essential to maintaining health and well-being.
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