Have you been nodding off during those important work meetings or falling asleep at your desk? What about skipping the gym because you can’t muster enough energy to get on the treadmill? If you’re feeling more ho-hum than get-up and go, you might be suffering from a lack of sleep. When you were an infant, sleep was one of the first and most essential activities that you mastered. Although you will spend about one-third of your life doing it, the importance of sleep is often ignored.
Getting enough sleep is even more critical to your health than following a strict diet or daily exercise routine. Quality sleep is the foundation for good health. Catching the right amount of zzzs is vital for your body to rebuild tissues, replenish cells and reclaim lost energy.
Why Do We Need to Sleep?
While you’re sleeping, your body is hard at work cleaning up the mess you’ve made during the day. Your systems are busy flushing out toxins, replacing cells, repairing damaged tissues and restoring your energy supply. Sleep gives you the time to heal and recover so you can take on the next day. Not getting enough sleep can lead to a sleep deficit that can have long-term effects on your health, including the risk of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and depression.
How Does Sleep Work?
As soon as you head to the coffee shop to begin your day, your body is already preparing for sleep. While you are awake, your body produces a chemical called adenosine which adds up consistently throughout the day and eventually causes drowsiness signaling that you’re ready for bed. Your sleep and its daily relationship with wakefulness are controlled by two systems: your biological clock (or circadian rhythm) and your sleep drive. Your circadian rhythm is the biochemical cycle that repeats roughly every 24 hours and governs sleep, wake time, hunger, body temperature, hormone release, and other subtle rhythms that mesh with the 24-hour day. Your sleep drive (the need for sleep) dictates the amount and intensity of sleep you need based on how long you’ve been awake. Think of your sleep drive like hunger; it builds throughout the day until it is satisfied.
While you’re asleep, your body is taking the time to rest, recover and rebuild so it can perform well the next day. By healing damaged cells, boosting your immune system, and recharging your heart and cardiovascular system for the next day, your body gets the reboot it needs to wake up feeling refreshed and alert for your daily activities. If you neglect your sleep schedule and begin collecting a sleep deficit, it can start wreaking havoc on your physical system, potentially leading to chronic illnesses such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s and even cancer.
A lack of sleep also greatly impacts your body’s own little army, your immune system. Your immune system serves as your body’s defense mechanism, protecting you from foreign invaders looking to divide and conquer. Without proper sleep, your immune system can become weakened and have trouble fighting off invaders. This can cause you to get sick more often and suffer through a slower recovery time when you do.
When you forget to count those sheep each night, your circadian rhythms get out of sync and begin to harm your hormone levels. Hormones regulate everything from your menstrual cycle to your hunger levels. For example, when your body doesn’t get enough sleep, it can disrupt your body’s ability to know when it’s satisfied. The hormones responsible for making you feel full or hungry (leptin and ghrelin, respectively) can get out of sync when you’re sleep deprived, causing you to feel hungrier than you should. Sleep can also affect the insulin, a hormone in your body, responsible for keeping your blood sugar level in check. If that’s not enough damage, hormones that regulate fertility can impact your ability to conceive a child.
If you haven’t been sleeping enough, you also might notice the numbers on the scale slowly creeping up. According to The National Institute of Health (NIH), short sleepers on average consumed 500 more calories a day than those people of the same age who slept 7 hours each night. If you’re one of these night feeders, you might be packing in extra calories when reaching for carbohydrates to boost your energy level. You may also be too tired to exercise in comparison to your well-rested peers. In children, the loss of sleep can affect the function of a region of the brain known as the hypothalamus, which regulates appetite and the release of energy.
If you’re feeling overweight, groggy or are suffering from a sleep disorder, it’s hard to remember that your emotional wellbeing is just as important as your physical health. A lack of sleep can put you in an all-around bad mood which can cast a shadow on all your daily activities.
A Harvard University study shows that by getting only five hours of sleep a night, you can adversely affect your brain’s ability to remember important information. Sleeplessness can lead to encoding failure which manifests in behaviors such as forgetting where you left your keys or the date of a birthday party you’re supposed to attend. These same neurobehavioral effects can also impact your attention and reaction time. Children and teenagers may be at the highest risk for memory problems because they need greater amounts of sleep while their bodies are still growing.
While some physical ailments, like obesity and cancer, can take many years to reach their peak, sleeplessness is a major cause of concern for sudden disasters, workplace hazards, and car accidents. In fact, drowsy driving has been proven to be just as bad as driving drunk. Throughout history, sleep deprivation has been the culprit for many disasters, like the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill, and the Bhopal, India gas tragedy.
If you’re a long-haul trucker or a medical care worker, you’re at a particularly high risk for accidents because of the long hours you put in each day. The NIH reports that almost 20 percent of all serious car crash injuries in the general population are associated with driver sleepiness with no alcohol involved.
By knowing what’s causing you to lose sleep, you can come up with a plan to counter the effects of sleep deprivation. Sweet slumber is one of life’s necessities, helping our bodies grow, repair tissue, replenish cells and restore energy. Something so vitally important to your overall health and longevity is nothing to take lightly. Get to sleep early and often. Happy snoozing!