Sleep, that one thing that is loved and lusted after above all else.
Nothing is better than waking up from a good, full sleep, one where you didn’t wake up in the middle of the night, one where you fell quick and easy, and one where you wake up feeling energized, refreshed, and ready for the day.
It’s unsurprising that sleep is loaded with health benefits, something I’m sure you’ve been hearing since you forced your Mom to justify your early bedtime as a kid.
The dangers of not attaining a certain minimum of sleep (at least eight hours) are potentially severe, but, if you maintain the minimum, you’ll be unlocking a myriad of health benefits.
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#1 Gives Your Brain a Boost
Your brain is the control center for your entire body.
Everything you do, from walking, to me typing these very words, is controlled by the instantaneous firing of neurons from your brain that travel down your spine and along your Central Nervous System (CNS) to trigger movement.
Because the brain is at the forefront of every action or bodily function you possess, the kind of ’boosts’ it gets when you’re sleeping are multi-faceted. I’ll get into some specifics of Memory retention and improved mood later.
In this more general sense, sleep literally heals your brain. While you’re dreaming, your brain is removing toxins and waste, and flushing itself out. The space between brain cells expand, allowing the gel-like substance that your brain sits in to clear waste on a molecular level.
This certainly sounds good, but the reality is even more poignant. These nightly cleansings are clearing out molecular toxins, but they’re also removing particles associated with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Studies conducted on people with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s found that they got less sleep than that required eight-hour magic number.
Sleep works like a nightly oil change for your car; it provides an opportunity for your brain to park in the shop, and take a look at itself, making sure it’s running optimally, efficiently, and healthily.
#2 Makes Your Heart Healthier
It’s important to note that sleep deprivation is not a necessary cause of heart disease.
Don’t panic. Sleep deprivation simply increases your risk factors.
Studies have found links between less sleep and calcium deposits, as well as high blood pressure, both predictors of heart disease. But quality sleep allows your heart a chance to slow and recover from its daily work.
This, much like in the brain, allows the heart to heal, cleanse, and fully prepare for another day of beating.
Further, lack of sleep can increase your levels of CRP, a protein related to stress and inflammation, which increases your risk of heart disease.
#3 Improves Your Athletic Performance
Many studies, as well as personal training stories from professional athletes, tell us that quality sleep is a heavy contributor to athletic success.
When you train, whether you’re training is running, swimming, lifting weights, or cycling, the physical processes that your body undergoes is breaks down muscles and depletes your levels of fluids and energy.
Sleep puts your body in a heavily relaxed state, allowing the muscles and cells to repair themselves, as well as allowing your energy levels to rise and your fluid levels to standardize.
Sleep deprivation does a few things related to athleticism, like increasing the prevalence of Cortisol (a stress hormone), as well as reducing the production of glycogen and carbohydrates, which basically puts you at higher risk of extreme fatigue and low focus.
#4 Puts You in a better Mood
You probably don’t need me to tell you this; we’ve all felt the general, unexplainable irritation that follows a late night and early morning.
We’ve all answered the “What’s wrong?” with “I didn’t sleep,” or “I’m just tired. Leave me alone, please.”
Studies have shown that even slight deprivation can result in irritation, anger, sadness, and exhaustion.
But more severe is the cyclical link between psychological disorders and sleep. Anxiety, stress, and depression can all impact insomnia, making it more difficult to sleep and thus reducing the amount of quality sleep you get.
Likewise, lack of sleep, or insomnia, can heavily increase your risk of depression or anxiety, and in some cases, can be a first symptom or predictor for depression.
#5 Increases Your Body’s Ability to Fight Germs
When you get sick, your white blood cells (T-Cells) identify and attach onto any infected cells, killing them where necessary.
A German study proved that sleep enhances the ability of those vital T-Cells to attach and kill infected cells; basically, more sleep, and higher quality sleep, help keep your body fully primed to combat germs and infections.
Further, this correlation means a lot for cancer-related immunotherapy, something I’ll get into more detail on later.
#6 Can Work to Reduce Risk of Cancer
The simple act of sleeping results in tons of biological processes, including the release of two hormones, Cortisol and Melatonin.
I’ve already mentioned Cortisol; it’s the ’stress’ hormone. Cortisol helps to regulate the immune system, its release into the body is supposed to be systemic, increasing while you are asleep and decreasing during the day.
People who don’t sleep as much as they should have abnormal Cortisol patterns, which deregulates their immune system, making it more difficult for their body to fight off cancer cells.
Melatonin is the hormone that your brain releases to knock you out every night. People who sleep less produce less melatonin, which can lead to a worsening of cancer, as melatonin helps prevent damage to healthy cells.
Sleep is also related to stress, as I mentioned above. Higher stress levels correlate to worse sleep, which correlates to a worsening of cancer.
Sleep gives your body its best chance to fend off cancer; it is important to allow this nightly rejuvenation of your cells. It’s all part of the healing process.
#7 Steadies Blood Sugar levels
Sleep also helps moderate blood sugar levels. The connection relates to insulin, and whether it works as it should to remove sugar from your blood.
In the second half of a normal sleep cycle, in the early morning hours, your blood sugar levels spike severely; your unconscious body directs your cells to absorb the extra sugar.
This can tie in to diabetes, which I’ll get into later on.
Studies have found that, in regards to blood sugar levels specifically, the more you sleep, the lower they are, while the less sleep you get, the higher your blood sugar levels.
This can lead to a whole slew of health combinations, mainly including diabetes. This is thought to be due to the fact that, when sleeping, the body is relaxed.
With a slower heart rate, plus no need for usual bodily functions, the body and brain consumes less glucose, which results in a decrease in the secretion of Cortisol (a stress hormone) and an increase in growth hormones, which contribute to a general decrease of blood sugar levels correlated to more sleep.
#8 Reduces Risk of Diabetes
A large consequence of sleep deprivation that I’ve already discussed includes a hormonal imbalance.
Your body releases certain hormones at certain amounts while you sleep, which affects everything from healing wounds to hunger levels.
Within that lies the link to diabetes.
There is a link between sleep deprivation and a decrease in insulin levels, as well as in increase in stress hormones including Cortisol, that inhibit the ability of insulin to absorb glucose, resulting in higher blood-glucose levels, which heavily increases the risk of type two diabetes.
Lack of sleep can also cause an overconsumption of sugary foods, which damages your blood sugar levels, again increasing your risk of getting diabetes.
A few nights of sleep deprivation can be reversed; the problem comes when that becomes a habit.
#9 Reduces Stress
The relationship of sleep and stress is little more than a vicious cycle. Studies have proven that lack of sleep, or low-quality sleep, results in stress, while at the same time, high stress levels can hinder sleep quality and time.
The point, or the part that you, in your unconscious state can control, is that more sleep is proven to have the desired effects of reduced stress levels.
Then, the cycle is kind of the opposite of vicious. You sleep more, so you’re less stressed, which means you sleep better, and so on.
We, unfortunately, live in a world where stress seems to exist everywhere we turn.
As such, it is highly comforting that we know sleep can help us deal with that, because, no matter how difficult it might be to avoid, stress, especially when it interferes with sleep, is just exhausting to deal with.
#10 Reduces Inflammation
Studies have shown that even a partial, temporary loss of sleep, is enough to trigger a cellular process that results in inflammation that poses a threat to healthy tissue, establishing a link between sleep deprivation and arthritis.
Getting the proper amount of sleep can therefore be enormously good for your body, as inflammation is key in many diseases, including obesity, diabetes, some cancers, arthritis, and heart disease.
Simply be sleeping for at least eight hours, something that you will never regret after you do it, you are preventing pro-inflammatory processes that have proven to have disastrously destructive effects on the human anatomy.
#11 Increases General Alertness
Here’s one that you have probably experienced.
Maybe you had a big test in the morning, or a paper due that you waited a bit too long to start, or a work deadline that you had to reach.
So you stayed up, and up, and up, until, by the time you went to sleep, if you went to sleep at all, the sky was beginning to grow a little lighter, and your clock, to your extreme irritation, read 2:45 A.M.
Trying to function the day after that awful night is nearly impossible. It is on those days that you fall asleep in class, that you fall asleep on the train, on the bus, in the car (hopefully if someone else is driving) all without meaning to.
Your eyes are heavy, and you are definitely trying to hold them open, but they just keep closing. So you spend the whole day snapping awake at random, unexpected moments, just waiting until you can get back to your bed.
Research has shown that people who suffer from sleep deprivation (just about every high school or college student for starters) suffer from impaired cognition during the day, something that is directly caused by a lack of sleep.
Because, as I mentioned earlier, sleep allows the brain to heal and recover; if the brain never has that chance to remove waste, it’s being forced to function when it can’t.
This lack of general alertness can be horribly damaging to your life if it occurs on a consistent basis. Homeostasis demands that the body recover from a day of living, by being asleep.
#12 Improves Grades
Besides the obvious ’if you’re well rested you’ll be able to learn better,’ studies have shown a specific link between efficient sleep and academic performance.
Efficient sleep refers to the amount of time you spend in bed sleeping, compared to the amount of time you spend in bed.
The study found that the part of the brain used for mathematics and language, the prefrontal cortex, is heavily affected by poor, or inefficient, sleep.
The more high quality sleep you get, the better you will be able to perform in school, thus the higher grades you’ll get.
Though this is more focused on kids or students, it can be universally applicable, as better sleep will better performance of any job that involves language or math.
#13 Prevents Accidents
Related to general inattentiveness and low, dulled brain activity, the risk of causing or getting in a car accident increases severely with lack of sleep.
Nearly one fifty of all fatal car accidents that occur in the US are caused by drowsiness.
Similar to driving while intoxicated, driving while sleep deprived is especially dangerous, as the perception is that you’ll be fine, because you are awake.
But you don’t have to fall asleep outright to get in an accident; sleep deprivation reduces general awareness; it becomes easier to miss something, to not see an error another driver is making, to not notice an error you are making.
So, by simply sleeping, you can avoid not only causing an accident, but also getting in one.
#14 Improves Memory
High quality sleep gives our minds the advantage when it comes to absorbing and storing information.
Sleep, in fact, is known to allow the brain to both process new experiences, as well as to make memories permanent.
When we sleep, our brains synthesize all the information we have gathered, all of our experiences, and all of our memories, and is able to learn more when transferring information from one region to another (here’s where that ’ah-ha’ moment comes from).
While it is true that scientists and psychologists don’t fully understand sleep and what it does for our bodies, it is very clear that more, better sleep is equivalent to a sharper, stronger brain, and sharper, stronger memories.
#15 Promotes Weight Loss
The connection between sleep and weight is two-fold.
Sleep deprivation, as by now you already know, doesn’t allow the brain to function at its full capabilities.
Within this, two things occur.
One, your frontal lobe, which is the center of decision making, becomes dulled, making it a whole lot easier for you to make bad health decisions, like skipping the gym, eating more, and eating worse.
Lack of sleep also lights up your brain’s reward center, again, making it a whole lot easier to go for that midnight bowl of sugary cereal or ice cream that we all know we shouldn’t have, but do anyway.
Lack of sleep, again, like you already know, is responsible for a spike in cortisol, or a haphazard pattern of cortisol release.
This spike in cortisol forces your body to conserve energy for when you are awake, and so makes you more prone to weight gain.
Sleep deprivation, for a slightly more extended period of time, also weakens your body’s ability to process insulin, which means your body will have trouble processing fat, which leads to fat being stores instead of processed, which results in weight gain.
Now, I’m not saying if you get your eight hours you’re going to wake up with the body of Ryan Reynolds or Gal Gadot. But by getting enough sleep, you’re making it easier to lose weight, and reducing the unnecessary weight gain that is attributed to sleep deprivation.
#16 Manages Appetite
Sleep is vital for the regulation of hormones; the two hormones in question here are Ghrelin and Leptin. Ghrelin stimulates hunger, while Leptin reduces it.
Sleep deprivation causes a Ghrelin spike, and a reduction in Leptin; less makes your body think it’s hungry.
This ties in with your increased risk of obesity, as lack of sleep also stimulates the reward center in your brain, making certain foods (cookies, candy, chocolate) much more enticing.
By getting your required amount of sleep, you’ll be ensuring that your hormones and appetite stay properly regulated.
#17 Reduces Risk of Obesity
I already discussed sleep and weight loss, but it goes beyond that.
Longitudinal studies have examined the connection between sleep and weight in children, and followed them through to adulthood.
The results show a convincing correlation between less sleep and increased weight, as well as increased risk of obesity into adulthood.
It isn’t yet clear if sleep can necessarily be considered an answer to obesity. And again, sleep is not the only aspect of the answer to this problem.
Healthy living reduces the risk of obesity, sleep just factors heavily into that.
#18 Reduces Risk of Depression
Depression and sleep, yet another vicious cycle.
It’s often hard to tell which came first, lack of sleep, or depression, but what is clear, is the link between depressed people and people who don’t get enough sleep.
Problems going to sleep, or attaining quality sleep, are often symptoms of depression.
Insomniacs are at a heavily increased risk of getting depression, and a majority of people with depression have trouble falling asleep.
There are certain tips that you can follow to help prime yourself for sleep and reduce the risk of insomnia, which I’ll get into at the end.
The important thing is to get your eight hours. This is linked with the general irritation, anxiety, and stress that results from sleep deprivation, and it’s thoroughly unsurprising that depression is lumped in with all of those disorders.
Getting the proper amount of sleep keeps you healthy, in your mind, and in your body.
#19 Heals Your Body
When you sleep, you are granting your body the opportunity to rest and recover. If you are sore or injured, whether it be a broken bone, a severe contusion, or a cut on your finger, sleep speeds the healing process.
In much the same way that sleep allows the brain to flush out toxicity, when you’re asleep, your brain recognizes areas of your body that need healing, and can release hormones that help repair blood vessels.
In addition, because your heart is working at a much lower rate while you sleep, your body is able to replenish its energy levels to be able to fight off infection and help heal your injuries quicker.
#20 Helps Immune System Function Properly
A big part of your immune system concerns T-Cells, the white blood cells that fight off infection.
Stress hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine, as well as pro-inflammatory molecules inhibit how well a T-Cell can stick to an infected cell.
The weaker this ’stickiness’ is, the worse the infection gets, as the body can’t fight it off as well.
When sleeping, your levels of these hormones and molecules substantially decrease, increasing the likelihood of your T-Cells sticking to, and killing infected cells.
This obviously relates to your ability to fight cancer, but also to viruses such as Flu, HIV, and Herpes. Sleep helps your T-Cells function, which means that sleep helps improve the strength and effectiveness of your immune system.
#21 Promotes Creativity
Whenever you go to sleep, your body experiences four different stages of sleep.
The first stage is the lightest stage, the second becomes slighter deeper, the third stage is known as the deep stage, and the final stage is referred to as REM sleep, or Rapid Eye Movement.
You cycle in and out of these stages throughout the night, and, after about eight hours, will be coming back into stage one, which makes it easier to wake up (if you sleep less than eight hours, this is psychologically why you’ll be so tired).
REM sleep is our dream stage. During this stage, your brain will experience its highest amount of unconscious activity, though your muscles will be completely paralyzed.
This stage of sleep is known to stimulate creativity, as dreams connect seemingly disconnected ideas, as well as show vivid, sometimes nonsensical images.
Studies have shown that, when faced with a difficult problem, nearly 60% of those that slept for eight hours after encountering it were able to solve it when they woke up, compared to the 23% success rate of those who did not sleep.
Sleep allows for better, more creative problem solving.
Sleep also serves as inspiration; Stephen King tells us in his book On Writing, that some of his best novels came from vivid dreams he had.
#22 Betters Your Social Interactions
It’s pretty obvious that sleep deprivation leads to irritation, general inattentiveness, and general daytime exhaustion.
But studies have shown that this sluggishness can biologically interfere with your social interactions.
Related to weakened brain activity, your ability to recognize social cues, including expressions of anger or sadness, becomes heavily diminished.
So, while it may be tempting to skive off on sleep for a late night hangout, that hangout might go better if you get some sleep first.
#23 Increases Productivity
Proper sleeping habits clearly accomplish a lot. Another thing to add to this endless list of benefits is an increase in productivity.
Sleeping the proper amount of time keeps you focused and efficient; when you’re sleep deprived, you are much more prone to distraction and lack of focus.
Sleep deprivation leads to inefficiency. Combine this with your improved memory and sharper brain functions, your productivity will shoot through the roof.
#24 Makes You Look Better
Beauty sleep sounds unrealistic; a good phrase, but never quite legitimate.
In reality, getting between seven and nine hours of sleep every night is promotes skin health.
Sleep deprivation releases stress hormones, which inflame the skin, worsening acne and wrinkles. When you sleep, your body delivers fluids to the tissues that need it, and removes excess fluids from those organs that have too much.
Coupled with a good nightly cleansing routine, you will find that sleep will actually reduce dark circles, wrinkles, and acne.
#25 Promotes Longer Life-Span
For all the reasons listed above, sleep deprivation can definitely result in mortality.
It won’t happen right away, and it won’t happen for sure, but the health problems you can acquire by not sleeping can prove to be lethal, especially as you get older and have to fend off weakening muscles and joints.
Now, it is important to note that sleep alone won’t have you traipsing off to triple-digits.
In fact, too much sleep isn’t healthy.
But the right amount, that is, seven to nine hours a night for an adult, can work in tandem with healthy eating and exercise, to prevent a whole myriad of life-threatening diseases, and, in effect, lengthen your life-span (which should give you time to catch up all the Netflix you’ve been missing while asleep).
To Sum it up
The body and mind are connected, and sleep is the one thing that provides a recharge to both. Besides the specific health benefits of attaining quality sleep, and besides the potential health risks of sleep deprivation, getting a full eight hours makes you feel better.
And the effects of those eight hours are proven; you will wake up feeling refreshed, you will be sharper, stronger, and more prone to learning, your memory will improve, your heart health will improve, your athleticism will improve, even your social experiences will become better.
Sleep, its benefits, and the dangers around it, are not theoretical. There is much we have yet to discover, but what we do know is backed by observational, longitudinal, and short-term studies.
The bottom line; getting the right amount of sleep keeps your mind and body balanced and primed to function at its best. And on top of that, it just feels good.
Bonus: Tips for Sleeping Better
There are plenty of things you can do to fall asleep faster, and sleep better.
One of these tips includes reduction of blue light exposure close to bedtime, something that has become increasingly important in 2019, where blue light can be found almost everywhere.
Blue light is emitted by screens including those of TVs, computers, and smartphones.
The effect of this is that essentially, you trick your brain into thinking it’s daytime, which messes with your circadian rhythm.
With this, it is important to get a lot of exposure to light (natural is best) during the day, to keep your circadian rhythm normal.
You can also exercise during the day (though not too close to bedtime). Research has established clear links between exercise and shorter time to fall asleep; exercise has proven to be more successful at combating insomnia than any of several different drugs that are often prescribed.
In addition, yoga and meditation, close to bedtime, can help prepare your mind and body for sleep, as yoga is a known muscle and mind relaxant, something I can personally attest to.
I started doing yoga at home before bedtime several years ago, and have seen almost instant improvement in the quality of my sleep.
Meditation ties into controlled breathing, which lowers your heart rate and helps usher you into the arms of the unconscious.
I’m a personal trainer based in Denver (Matrix Gym) and a true fitness nerd. If I’m not training clients or working out at my home gym, I’m probably skiing, cycling or hiking with my dog Rufus.
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