We are often told about the benefits of a good night’s sleep. It is even ingrained into certain phrases such as “beauty sleep” or trying to “sleep off” an illness or a hangover when we have overindulged.
Is there any truth to these statements?
Is a good night’s sleep really as important as we think it is?
Studies have now shown that sleep, and sleep deprivation, affects our body in a myriad of ways.
The effects can be subtle or significant, depending on the amount of sleep achieved and the individual concerned.
The quality of the sleep we get can have a profound effect over a long period of time, whether positive or negative.
Better sleep has been associated with an improvement in mood and faster recovery from illness and injury, for example.
However, sleep deprivation has been associated with some serious side-effects. In extreme cases, depression, anxiety, and even hallucinations can be experienced.
Even small amounts of sleep deprivation, if experienced over a long period of time, can have a major impact on our mood, memory, and overall health.
The importance of assessing the factors
It is important to assess what factors might disturb our sleep and how we can address them.
Sleep disturbances can vary according to our age, lifestyle, and whether we are a healthy weight, but they can also be caused by more temporary situations, such as overheating or becoming cold, experiencing side-effects from medication, or a particularly bright or noisy night. Whatever the cause, we should take steps to address our lack of sleep.
We may choose to ensure that our room is a pleasant temperature for us and that our mattress and pillows are comfortable. We may avoid caffeinated drinks after 2pm and have a lighter evening meal that is easier to digest.
By taking a few simple steps, we can address sleeplessness and improve overall health. Below are some of the most significant ways in which sleep affects the body.
Metabolism and weight
A recent article, published by the BBC, linked sleep deprivation to an increased risk of obesity and Type 2 diabetes. The study was completed by a team of researchers at both the University of Bristol and Qatar’s Weill Cornell Medical College. It referred in particular to a phenomenon known as “sleep debt” - meaning the number of hours of sleep we sacrifice on a daily or weekly basis, that we would really need for optimum brain and body function.
The study followed the sleeping habits of over 500 people and found that those who were losing sleep on weekdays were at a greater risk of developing diabetes and becoming obese. The internal “body clock” that regulates our sleeping and waking is also linked to other essential biological tasks like hormone production.
Sleep deprivation can directly affect our levels of insulin resistance, which in turn can leave us vulnerable to diabetes and weight gain.
A doctor from the study commented that while we are aware that the loss of sleep is a common and important complaint, we are only recently becoming aware of the significant impact it has on our metabolism.
It has even been suggested that weight loss groups should incorporate sleeping advice and the promotion of regular, quality sleep in order to support healthy weight goals.
Night shift workers are thought to be especially at risk from sleep deprivation effects, and were urged to take special care that the sleep they get is undisturbed and of good quality.
Concentration and memory
A high proportion of people have experienced the effects of sleeplessness on concentration and memory first hand.
A poor night’s sleep, whether due to stress, illness, or merely discomfort, can make us feel foggy the next day. Our reactions may be slower, we may forget the task in hand, and we may not perform as well in our working lives as we normally would.
We can usually “catch up” on our sleep by having an early night the next day, but over time, the results can be more long-lasting. Many studies have commented on the effect of a lack of sleep on memory and concentration, finding that it can be impaired in minor and more serious ways.
The elite American university, Harvard, found that sleep is one of the most important factors of good concentration and memory performance. Its studies found that without good quality sleep, the organ systems of the body are not synchronised and neurons do not fire optimally, as a result.
Sleep deprivation effects can include a feeling of “muddled” thinking, and our lapse in focus may even be more likely to result in accidents and injury.
Power naps - or short sleeps of between 10 and 40 minutes - have been found by other studies to drastically increase our performance in tasks that require concentration, if we have been sleeping badly.
Mood and mental health
The link between mood management and quality of sleep has been demonstrated in a number of high profile studies. The impact of sleep upon depression has been particularly widely discussed and is recognised by a number of prestigious and authoritative institutions including the NHS, Oxford University, Harvard University, and the National Sleep Foundation.
Depression, anxiety, and other common forms of mental illness may cause insomnia in the sufferer, but symptoms are also further exasperated by a lack of sleep.
Many of the major studies found that sleep does not only have a physical impact on our bodies but a profound impact on our mind and mood. We are far more likely to experience extreme stress and irritability if we have slept poorly, and over time, a lack of sleep increases our risk of experiencing a mood disorder such as anxiety or depression.
Patients already suffering from anxiety or depression are reported to have frequently experienced an improvement in their condition if a good sleep routine can be maintained with several hours of quality sleep a night.
Unfortunately, medications can make this difficult along with the symptoms of the illnesses themselves, increasing the sleep deprivation effects. Whether suffering from an illness or trying to maintain good health, ensuring adequate sleep has been recognised as a key component of overall physical and mental wellbeing.
Growth and recovery
For adolescents and children, adequate sleep is essential for optimal growth and recovery from the day’s activities, including physical and mental strain. Later in life, sleep may not be as important for physical growth but it has been proven an essential part of recovery processes.
Whether simply recovering from daily stresses, strains, knocks and bumps, or recuperating from a serious illness or injury, the quality of your sleep plays a crucial role. A lack of sleep can also inhibit the absorption of medicine and nutrients from food, further slowing recovery.
As the overall energy demands on the body drop when we are asleep, sleep allows the body to concentrate on repairing damage, whether serious or minute, without having to focus on daily tasks and other demands. It allows our body to absorb nutrients effectively, as well as medicines and supplements, and to relax the muscles and ligaments so that they can feel supple and refreshed the next day.
If we are unwell and unable to get a good night's sleep or to rest effectively, our recovery will be slowed. On the other hand, a restful night's sleep can help us to recover faster and wake up feeling refreshed and energised.
A recent study undertaken on both professional athletes and recreational sports players found that sleep had a noticeable impact on their recovery from muscular injuries, in particular. The relationship between sleep and muscle repair is linked to metabolism, growth hormones, and blood flow, all of which are carefully regulated by the brain as we sleep.
Blood flow to the affected injury is crucial for recovery, and during deep sleep, a staggering 40% of the blood flow usually reserved for the brain can be sent to the muscles. The body also produces hormones with their own anti-inflammatory properties, including prolactin, which further helps muscles and joints to return to full health.
Whether you are a young athlete, a busy working parent, or a retiree looking to build and maintain good overall health, good quality sleep will have a positive impact.
Sleep deprivation effects can include poor concentration, low mood, anxiety, a compromised immune system, inhibited recovery, slow metabolism, and a greater risk of serious illness. While the occasional bad night can usually be counteracted with good quality sleep the next day, it is important to address any regular occurrences that may disturb sleep.
This may be as simple as reducing strenuous activities an hour before bed, ensuring that we are not too exposed to bright lights and especially laptop and computer screens in the evening, or wearing earplugs and an eye mask during sleep to maximise our chances of not being disturbed.
Sleep deprivation effects can be serious, but with good nutrition, regular exercise, a relaxing nighttime routine and a vigilant approach, we can ensure our sleep is restful and refreshing.