We’re starting to wake up to the importance of sleep. Leaving sleep for whatever time you have left over in the day is not such a smart move, especially if you’re hoping to live a long, healthy and productive life.
Logging a good night’s sleep might seem more like an indulgence than a necessity, especially in today’s society, in which surviving on minimal shut-eye earns you bragging rights. You’re simply too busy to do something as mundane (and seemingly unproductive) as sleep. Besides, this mindset comes with rewards, because it implies you’re a harder worker. You’ll just sleep when you’re dead, right?
Turns out, that could be sooner than later if you don’t revamp your relationship with your bed. That’s because sleep is often considered one of the three pillars of health, along with diet and exercise. More recently, however, it’s being seen not just as a pillar but as the foundation. “Sleep affects everything you do in life,” says W. David Brown, PhD, CBSM, coauthor of Sleeping Your Way to the Top (Sterling, 2016) and a sleep psychologist at Children’s Medical Center Research Institute at UT Southwestern in Dallas.
That’s a message, however, Americans apparently aren’t getting. One in three adults aren’t getting the sleep they need, defined as at least seven hours, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has declared America’s sleep crisis a national public health issue. Here’s how to prevent it from becoming a personal health crisis.
Why you need sleep
One question that’s plagued sleep researchers is the same one you might be asking: Why do humans need to sleep? Many sleep experts will say they don’t know, but that’s not exactly true. “Although we don’t know every single outcome or change that happens in sleep, we do know why we sleep: Because we have to,” says Michael Grandner, PhD, director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson. Sleep is hardwired into human biology, and aside from being sleepy if you don’t sleep, there’s a bigger consequence. “We sleep because if we don’t, we would die.”
That might shock you, until you consider that when you sleep your body’s not actually taking a break. Contrary to what most people think, sleep is an extremely productive time for your body, which is why you spend about a third of your life asleep, Brown says.
The human body, after all, is a complex machine with many systems that are trying not only to work together but also to function well on their own, even performing their own maintenance. So how does the body juggle all of these systems and keep them in sync? By following predictable rhythms, namely sleep patterns that mimic the rise and fall of the sun.
The most obvious effect of sleep is how it impacts your cognitive function, including overall brain health. “Researchers suggest that we sleep in order to clear our neural network and keep our brains plastic, so we can open up space for new memories and associations,” Brown says. In fact, the effect is so dramatic that sleep deprivation in childhood could change the way kids’ brains are hardwired and fundamentally affect them long-term. (As an aside, Brown encourages parents to maintain regular sleep routines for kids and be a good sleep role model so kids learn to take sleep seriously.)
What happens without sleep
Without sleep, though, reaction time, productivity, creativity, attention, concentration and memory are quickly impaired. In fact, being awake for 24 hours leads to performance deficits equal to having a blood alcohol content of .10, Brown says. That’s why driving, operating machinery or manning an airplane when drowsy can ultimately be deadly.
Chronic sleep deprivation has also been linked with dementia. “Chronically not sleeping well affects how your brain ages,” says Britney Blair, PsyD, CBSM, a California-based clinical psychologist and behavioral sleep medicine specialist. Risk of depression and anxiety increases when you’re not sleeping, and if you’re depressed and have chronic sleep woes, you’re six times more likely to attempt suicide.
There are also physical consequences of too little sleep, the biggest being weight woes. “If you’re not getting enough sleep and are trying to either maintain or lose weight, good luck,” Grandner says. Lack of sleep shifts two appetite-regulating hormones, ghrelin and leptin, essentially causing you to overeat, among other things.
Other consequences of inadequate sleep include increased risk of diabetes and heart disease, and a compromised immune system, which heightens your risk of getting sick, Blair says, adding that you’re three times more likely to get a cold without adequate sleep. And if you’re trying to make gains in your fitness program, not only won’t you have energy to exercise, you also won’t see results if you don’t give your muscles time to rebuild and rest, which happens during sleep.