Oh the irony! When we were kids we wanted nothing more than to stay up late and never go to bed. It felt as though going to sleep, whether at night or for naps, was more of a punishment than a necessity. Little did we know then just how much sleep we actually needed. As we get older, and we find ourselves wanting some much needed rest, the need for more sleep becomes less important than getting quality sleep. Recent studies and science have shown that the need to meet minimum sleep requirements is, in fact, vital to our health, no matter what our age.
Why We Need Sleep
Like all animals, humans require food, water and oxygen to survive, but the list isn’t complete without a proper amount of sleep added to the equation. In fact, scientists are only recently discovering just how important these sleep hours are to our overall health and wellness. The importance of this sleep time, which comprises a solid third of our life, has become such a priority that it’s spawned a whole new field of research called “Sleep Health”.
There are various systems within the body that depend on sleep time for optimal performance or for recharging. For instance, the human body produces a chemical called Adenosine which is required for biochemical processes in the body as well as the regulation of blood flow. The human body produces this chemical while awake. As the amount of Adenosine builds up in our bodies, we get tired and require sleep, allowing our bodies to break down the chemical and utilize it for its intended purpose.
Additionally, vital organs of the body rely on sleep to replenish and cleanse themselves. For example, the production and distribution of cerebral spinal fluid is increased while we are asleep. This fluid acts as a brain cleaning agent, removing waste products that brain cells make. (This is the reason we wake up feeling refreshed and with a “clear head” after a good nights’ sleep). Also, the heart, which works hard while we are awake, is given a much-needed rest during sleep. During non-REM sleep phases the heart rate drops and blood pressure decreases to lighten the load of this vital organ.
Sleep also has a healing effect on the body. When asleep, the body releases growth hormones that work to rebuild muscles and joints and encourage tissue growth. During sleep, our bodies also make more white blood cells that attack viruses and bacteria. Essentially, the more sleep you get, the better equipped your body will be to repair itself and fight off infection. This is a big reason why our bodies require so much more sleep when we’re sick or injured.
Sleep also plays a significant role in how we function mentally and psychologically. According to numerous studies on the brain, there is no more important factor to the learning process than getting enough sleep. If you’re preparing for a big test or a new learning experience, you can dramatically increase brain performance by getting a good nights’ sleep. This is also true of your mood and emotional state. When you toss and turn all night, chances are that you’ll wake up cranky the next day, but when you’re rested and refreshed, you’re much more predisposed to be in a cheerful mood. The long-term effects can be significant as well. Recent research has shown that people who regularly slept seven to nine hours a night had fewer symptoms of depression than those who were sleep deprived.
How Much Sleep Do We Need?
Studies and science have shown that the average adult requires between seven and nine hours of sleep each night in order to function optimally. However, this varies for some individuals and you should rely on your body to tell you when you’re getting (or not getting) enough sleep. Age plays an important role in the sleep equation, as you can see from clicking the graphic below.
Negative Effects of Sleep Deprivation
Just as specific body organs, functions, and systems rely on a healthy supply of sleep to operate optimally, the reverse is true when the body doesn’t get enough rest. This equation is so vital that our bodies actually build up what is called “Sleep Debt” when we don’t get enough. Sleep debt isn’t easy to overcome and the long-term effects can be devastating.
When we are sleep deprived, the amount of Adenosine builds up in our bodies, making us sluggish and lowering reaction time. The heart has to work harder than it should, putting undue strain on one of our most important organs. Lack of sleep also negatively affects the production of white blood cells, hampering and the body’s natural ability to heal itself. Lack of sleep has also been linked to weight gain and unhealthy skin problems.
As discussed, our mental and emotional state is greatly and adversely affected by lack of sleep. Lack of sleep has a detrimental effect on both thinking and learning and impairs attention, alertness, concentration, reasoning, and problem solving. During the night, sleep cycles play an important role in sorting out memories as well, so not getting enough sleep will affect our ability to recall and remember things that we’ve seen, read or learned during the day.
Other detrimental effects of lack of sleep include forgetfulness, impaired judgement, sluggishness and, most significantly, depression. Insomnia and depression have actually been commonly linked together and usually feed off one another.
More severe or chronic sleep deprivation can also lead to more serious health concerns such as:
- Heart disease
- Heart attack
- Heart failure
- Irregular heartbeat
- High blood pressure
Healthy Sleep Tips
The most important thing you can do to immediately improve your sleep habits is to make sleep a top priority. Make sure you’re getting the required 7-9 hours of rest each night for starters. Avoiding sleep debt in the first place ensures that your body is operating properly in order to get the most out of your sleep experience.
Here are some additional suggestions for healthy sleeping habits:
- Create a sleep schedule and stick to it, even on weekends
- Practice a relaxing bedtime ritual, such as meditation
- Exercise regularly – Even a 10 minute daily walk can make a positive impact on sleep
- Make sure to sleep on a comfortable mattress and pillows
- Evaluate your bedroom environment to ensure ideal temperature and quiet
- Get a relaxing Therapeutic Massage to reduce stress earlier in the day
- Avoid hidden sleep stealers, like alcohol and caffeine
- Turn off electronics before bed
- Take a hot shower or warm bath
- Avoid eating before bed
- Read a book in bed
The real irony in avoiding sleep when we were children is that it’s when we needed more of it. But that’s not to say that we can become careless in our sleep habits as we age. We may need less sleep as we get older, but the required quality and importance of that sleep increases. A healthy sleep regiment is as important to our overall health as exercise or diet. Make sure to pay attention to your sleep habits and your body will feel the difference.
About The Author
Maria Martos is the Executive Director and Founder of the Cancer Support and Education Program, and has been owner of Sagewood Wellness Center for 20 years. As a Certified Neuromuscular Therapist, Maria specializes in the treatment of severe, chronic or minor pain, as well as injury rehabilitation and prevention. She holds a certification in Sports Massage providing her with expertise to evaluate and address athletic injuries and to help professional and recreational athletes improve their athletic performance. Maria is also Board Certified by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork. She holds a Master of Science in Counseling Psychology, and offers Holistic Counseling, focusing on Integrative Mind-Body Therapy to help individuals uncover and remove unconscious blocks that limit them from living their best lives. She is also a Reiki Master and Teacher, and has worked in the health care field for over 25 years. Her passion and life’s calling is to help others not just survive, but thrive in the face of challenges.