The benefits of sleep and are you getting enough of it?

16/4/2021

(6-8 minute read)

Trying to achieve everything you planned to do during your day not only takes up all your time (If it isn't, it should!), it can also be very exhausting.

Finishing work for the day, getting your exercise in, cooking and eating the right amount of food and for students, completing your studies in time to meet deadlines are some of the many things we all try to tick off at the end of our days so that we can function properly and feel that we have been satisfactorily productive. 

It's not uncommon for these things to take precedence over something that is often underappreciated and is equally if not more important and that's sleep!  

We often say to ourselves that sleep can wait because there are more pressing things at hand that need to be done. There have been more times than I could count where I would stay up late to complete an assignment or get a late night workout in as there was no prior opportunity for me during the day. But although it can sometimes feel like it was for the best that an hour or two of sleep was sacrificed to get these things done, It might surprise you to learn that often sleep is what should be taking priority!

So why is sleep so important? 

1. Better concentration and productivity

Did you know that a lack of sleep has been said to have the same effect on mental function as being under the influence of alcohol? (1).

Speaking to what was said before, often when I would stay up late cramming for a test I had the next day, I would sometimes wake up feeling so average that I would forget everything I was trying to retain!  

If only I'd appreciated at the time sleeps ability to greatly enhances our problem solving skills and memory performance (234). Numerous studies have shown that getting enough sleep drastically improves mental cognition and focus, increasing productivity and enabling us to complete tasks more efficiently and effectively! (5).

This improvement in mental performance acts in a cyclical manner in that as tasks are completed, one may find themselves nodding off easier than usual, feeling as though they have done enough to deserve a hard earned sleep.

So next time, when you think it might be best to keep studying long into the night, close the laptop and get started again tomorrow!

2. Improved social and emotional awareness

I find that when I haven't had enough sleep not only do I have trouble focusing on tasks, but also the people around me.

A lack of sleep negatively effects our ability to interact with other people. We can all agree that we aren't in the best mood when we haven't had a good night sleep, often isolating ourselves, not wanting to speak or deal with anybody.

Aside from simply being in a bad mood, our ability to recognise and process important social and emotional cues is also compromised, potentially negatively impacting our relationships with other people. (Sometimes I don't even know when I'm being spoken to...)

3. Improved athletic performance

Sleep is as fundamental to an athletes training regime as exercise and the food they eat.

At a physiological level, sleep is an essential window to provide the heart and other functioning body parts an opportunity to rest and repair. Getting enough sleep and reaching the appropriate stages of sleep further improves cardiovascular health (6).

As previously mentioned, sleep is important for problem solving, cognitive function and in retaining memories. These benefits lend themselves to athletic performance in that when a new skill is developed in a training environment, the retention and effective future application of that learned skill is heavily influenced by how much sleep a person is getting. If you aren't getting enough of it, your brain isn't nearly as effective at memorising and applying these skills later (7).

Other effects that a lack of sleep has on performance include faster exhaustion, slower reaction time, learning and decision making, higher risk of injury and a higher risk of illness, which will be touched on below.

 4. Reduced risk of gaining weight and heart disease

Although studies have concluded that a lack of sleep does not directly correlate to increases in weight gain (8), it has been found that factors such as a lack of motivation to train and increases in appetite by virtue of sleep deprivation both contribute to weight gain.

When sleep deprived, our body is unable to effectively regulate the release of the appetite hormones called Ghrelin (which stimulates appetite) and leptin (which suppresses it). (91011) As a result, we become much hungrier and end up eating more food than usual.  

The risk of heart disease is reduced significantly when blood pressure is regulated, and findings from the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States found that appropriate levels of sleep help in effectively regulating the bodies bloody pressure, thus reducing the risk of heart disease. 

5. Strengthens your immune system

Consistently getting enough sleep does wonders for our immune system. Various studies have shown that we are far more likely to get sick after being exposed to viruses when we don't get enough quality sleep. 

Getting sick is often out of our control, and once you are sick there isn't much you can do about it.... except for sleep! Sleep also increases how quickly we recover when we are sick. So if you are feeling under the weather, it's the perfect excuse to take a nap.

6. Reduced likelihood of depression and mental distress

I've left this benefit until last as I see it as the most important reason that we should all be getting a good nights sleep each night.

It's all well and good to be in good physical shape and performing your best in whatever athletic endeavours you have. Similarly, we want to always make sure we are not sick, able to work and socialise with others properly. However, mental wellbeing is as important as physical health in performing our day to day tasks and achieving what we want in life. 

Sleep deprivation and insomnia are issues that are highly associated with depression and mental illness. Among people with depression, approximately 75 per cent have issues getting enough sleep each night (12). Depression and other forms of mental distress can be highly repressive and have terrible effects on our ability to perform physically and interact socially with others.

There are many things that can happen in life that incite stress and make it difficult for us to go to sleep. It can be seen as quite a vicious cycle; we get stressed about something, we can't sleep and as a result, we get more stressed. 

 

So, I think the obvious take away from this is that you should never sacrifice getting a good night sleep. This is obviously easier said than done, as I know you can't just flick a switch and fall asleep whenever you like and I know that sometimes you don't have a choice. We can however practice a number of things that are known to help us get to sleep easier such as exercising regularly, reserving your bed for sleep and sleep alone (also easier said than done), avoiding caffeine and alcohol where possible and avoiding going to bed hungry.

Getting enough sleep is very noticeable, as you'll find yourself being far more energised and motivated to go about your day and complete the things you set out to achieve. Give it a try!

I hope this helps :)