Improved health and wellness is an important priority for millions of people — and rightly so, for without it, what do we have left? Yet, the true foundation on which we are able to preserve, maintain and/or restore our health is often overlooked. Quality sleep. It’s so simple but frequently relegated to the bottom of our priority list because after all, life. Amiright?
According to the Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 1 in 3 Americans are not getting the recommended 7 or more hours of sleep per night, despite sleep deprivation being an associated risk factor for a host of chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and frequent mental distress.
So, what really are we giving up when we don’t get enough quality sleep?
Sleep and the Brain
Sleep plays a pivotal role in brain health, and sleep deprivation – both short and long-term – can quickly take a mental toll. Too many restless and late nights may be secretly making their mark on your brain’s vital functions – memory, focus, mental well-being – and making you more susceptible to diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and depression. A few ways excessive nights of poor sleep can affect brain function include:
- Concentration and productivity: Optimal concentration and productivity require a well-rested brain. Without proper sleep, your attention span is compromised, your reaction times slow, and your productivity dwindles. What’s worse with all these negative side effects is that you put yourself at greater risk for automobile and workplace accidents.
- Memory: According to a study conducted by the University of California Los Angeles, sleep deprivation causes neural cells to slow down their absorption of visual information and translate it into thought. In other words, it disrupts cells ability to communicate with each other, which causes delays in memory and visual perceptions. Sleep deprivation also harms memory recall since the process of memory storage for long-term recall occurs during sleep.
- Depression: Most of us know that consistently poor sleep may be a sign of depression, but did you also know that a lack of sleep increases your chances of developing depression. Particularly among young adults, there is a strong correlation between insomnia and major depressive disorder.
- Brain waste disposal: While you sleep, your brain undergoes the massively important work of cleaning itself through the disposal of protein clumps. In a sleep deprived person, protein can accumulate in the brain, even reaching to toxic levels in the worst cases.
- Hormone levels: Serotonin, dopamine, and cortisol are the key hormones involved in the thinking process and in the regulation of mood and energy levels. Since many of these hormones are released into the body during sleep, sleep deprivation can throw our hormones into disarray and dysregulation.
- Decision making: Sleep deprivation affects the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is the center for decision making, causing people to act on impulsively.
Sleep and the Body
- Heart health: Sleep and heart health go hand-in-hand. Since blood pressure levels drop during sleep to give your heart much needed reprieve from daily stressors, people who are sleep deprived maintain higher blood pressure levels for longer periods of time, taxing the heart and increasing their risk of heart disease and strokes.
- Type 2 diabetes: Those who experience habitual sleep deprivation are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes. The research is compelling and should serve as a caution against not getting enough sleep.
- Weight gain: When you’ve only slept a few hours, chances are you’ll find yourself reaching for more fatty comfort foods to satisfy your hunger. That’s because sleep deprivation contributes to feelings of increased hunger to supplement for the lost energy we should be getting from sleep. Also, who has the motivation to exercise when they’re feeling exhausted?!
- Athletic performance: For athletes and aspiring athletes (or not!) alike, a solid night’s rest makes a drastic difference when it comes to getting your head in the game. The list of functions needed for athletic performance that are supported or hindered by the amount of sleep you get is long: Your focus is better, reaction times improve, injury rates lower, accuracy and sprint times are higher, and you incur fewer mental errors.
- Immune system function: Our immune system is heavily dependent on quality sleep to be able to properly protect us. Not only can sleep deprivation make us more prone to illness or infection, but it can also delay recovery time.
Sleep Quality vs. Sleep Quantity
Are you ready for an inconvenient truth? Here it is: Sleep quantity does not equal sleep quality. The sleep world terms this “sleep efficiency,” and according to the National Sleep Foundation, signs of good sleep efficiency can be identified by: sleeping 85% of time spent in bed, taking 30 minutes or less to fall asleep, waking up no more than once per night, and being awake for 20 minutes or less during the night after falling asleep.
How to Get the Best Sleep
For many of us, our bedtime routine and/or our sleep environment are major contributors to getting quality sleep. The strategies themselves are pretty simple, if we only pay attention and commit to them. Read more about: Creating the Perfect Sleep Environment & Bedtime Routine
When Sleep Quality is Hampered by Existing Sleep Conditions
For some, common sleep disorders, such as insomnia and sleep apnea, among others, may be contributing to chronic sleep deprivation. These disorders are entirely treatable but require a medical diagnosis and prescribed treatment to get on the right track.
Insomnia, characterized by difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, has symptoms that include: low energy, difficulty concentrating, changes in mood, and decreased performance. Insomnia can be acute, resulting from a specific circumstance that is only temporary, or more serious. Chronic insomnia is more severe, and tends to occur at least 3 times a week and lasts at least 3 months.
Sleep apnea is marked by the cessation of breathing during the night. Common symptoms of sleep apnea include: loud and frequent snoring, gasping and choking, pauses in breathing, fatigue during the daytime, trouble concentrating, memory loss, insomnia and irritability. Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common form and occurs when the soft tissue of back of throat collapses and the airway becomes blocked during sleep. Central sleep apnea involves a failure of the brain to tell your body that it needs to breathe during the night and does not involve an airway blockage.
If you think you are suffering from a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea, it is important that you seek medical attention to gain a diagnosis and explore your possible treatments.