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9 Health Benefits of Getting Enough Sleep

Getting 7-8 hours of sleep per night has long been the standard recommendation. But we now understand how important sleep quality, in addition to quantity, is for maintaining good health.

A good night’s sleep is one of life’s simple pleasures. It’s also essential for good health, providing our bodies the downtime needed to heal wounds, remove cellular toxins, and lay down neural pathways, to name just a few benefits.

And it’s not only about the number of hours you sleep—getting quality sleep matters as much when it comes to your health and well-being. Read on to learn more.

How Much Sleep Is Enough?

We’ve all heard of people who claim they only need four or five hours of sleep a night. But for most of us, that’s just not enough. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that adults get at least 7 hours of sleep per night on a regular basis to maintain good health and up to 9 hours per night, especially if we’re under strain or making up for a sleep deficit. One formula suggested by sleep scientists is that for every two hours spent awake, you need one hour of sleep.

Sleep needs change over the course of our lives, with babies and children requiring the most, as many as 12-16 hours; teenagers, up to 10 hours of sleep per night; and older adults requiring at least 7 hours and often more, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

While these recommendations are universally accepted, individual sleep needs may also be influenced by genetics, illness, and other factors.

Quality Over Quantity

How many hours we sleep per night matters. But what matters even more for our health is the quality of that sleep. In other words, what happens during those hours of slumber.

The body repeatedly cycles through two sleep stages throughout the night, each of which serve different functions and are important for overall health and well-being. Non-REM (rapid eye movement) stage is our deepest sleep, when it’s difficult to wake up. This is when the body does much of its restoration work, including tissue repair and regeneration, bone building, and immunity strengthening. The lighter REM stage is more active. This is when we dream, process, and consolidate new information to be stored in memory, and it supports concentration and mood regulation.

Disruptions to either of these sleep stages—due to sleep deprivation or to wakefulness—impact how we feel in the short term and may have significant consequences for our health.

The National Sleep Foundation suggests these guidelines for measuring a good sleep quality:

  • You wake no more than once during the night.
  • You spend at least 85% of your bedtime asleep.
  • You fall asleep within 30 minutes of going to bed.
  • You’re awake no more than 20 minutes after initially falling asleep.

When it comes to getting good sleep, you know it when you’ve experienced it: You wake up feeling rested and restored, full of energy, and clear-headed. There’s a felt sense of having had a physical and mental reset.

You also know when you’ve experienced poor sleep. Perhaps you had difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, or you tossed and turned all night, experiencing symptoms of a sleep disorder like sleep apnea. You likely still felt tired and groggy when you woke up despite the number of hours you’d been in bed.

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9 Health Benefits of Sleep

Clearly, getting enough quality sleep is important for feeling rested and alert during your waking hours. But there’s much more to sleep than that. Good sleep is nature’s way of maintaining our health and supporting mental and emotional well-being.

Here are nine important benefits of getting enough sleep:

1. Powers your immunity

When we sleep, the body ramps up its defense against pathogens and other threats through the work of the immune system. This is why, if you’ve had a cold, you often feel better after a good night’s sleep. It’s also why we sleep more when we have an infection or other illness. This process, however, is maintained by a delicate hormonal balance, one that is easily disrupted when we don’t get enough sleep and that can leave us more susceptible to infection, systemic inflammation, and more.

2. Makes your brain work better

Sleep is when the brain does the heavy lifting of processing information it receives during waking hours, including laying down neural pathways. In this way, sleep is essential for brain plasticity.

It is also vital to the process of memory—storing, consolidating, strengthening, and retaining some memories while letting others go. The impact of this ranges from how we learn—taking a nap during study sessions may help the brain better commit new information to memory, for example—to memory impairment experienced by older adults whose sleep patterns are less consistent.

Sleep is when the body replenishes and rebalances certain neurochemicals. And scientists believe that it also facilitates the brain’s “waste-management” system—a process of flushing and clearing toxic byproducts from brain cells that could otherwise contribute to degenerative conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease.

3. Protects your heart

Sleep allows the hardworking heart to take a well-deserved break—blood pressure naturally lowers and heart rate slows as you relax into non-REM, deep sleep. According to the American Heart Association, not getting enough sleep, or not getting quality sleep, has the opposite effect, leading to higher blood pressure, which is a precursor for coronary heart disease (CHD), among other conditions. Lack of sleep has also been associated with calcium build-up in coronary arteries. And studies have linked higher risk of developing or dying of CHD or stroke from not getting enough sleep and also from getting too much sleep.

4. Helps your body heal

In addition to supporting immune function, when you sleep and your body rests, the brain is able to attend to other tasks, including releasing hormones essential for tissue growth and repair. In this way, sleep may be more important for wound healing than good nutrition.

Sleep deprivation, on the other hand, increases the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines, proteins that, in excess, impair immune function and impede muscle recovery and repair.

5. Balances blood sugar

Getting proper sleep is important to maintain blood-sugar balance, which is essential for good health. An imbalance of blood sugar can lead to diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, among other conditions. Lack of sleep interferes with the work of the hormone insulin, which facilitates the transfer of glucose (sugar) from your blood throughout your body where it’s used for energy.

6. Keeps your weight in check

Sleep plays an important role in regulating metabolism—the amount of energy your body uses to function. In addition to maintaining blood-sugar balance, sleep supports normal functioning of the appetite-suppressing hormone leptin. Lack of sleep has been linked to increases in ghrelin, a hormone produced in the stomach that stimulates appetite. Numerous studies have found correlations between insufficient sleep and weight gain and obesity.

7. Reduces stress

Clearly not getting a good night’s sleep can make everything seem harder, as your mind and body struggle to get through the day. Feeling irritabile, moody, or sad aren’t uncommon when you haven’t slept well. In fact, chronic poor sleep is associated with conditions including anxiety and depression. By giving you a full-body reset, sleeping well can provide the protective buffer your brain and body need during stressful times.

8. Makes you more productive

When you get a good night’s sleep, you wake up energized and refreshed and prepared to face the day ahead. Quality sleep is correlated with improved cognition, including better working memory and memory recall and stronger emotional regulation. This helps with decision-making, planning, and dealing with stressful circumstances.

Lack of sleep can be a productivity killer. One study of more than 4,000 employees found that insomnia and poor sleep predicted significantly worse productivity, performance, and safety outcomes. In another, medical and surgical residents who reported chronic sleep disruption and deprivation exhibited slower processing time, more impulsivity, and impaired executive function.

9. Boosts athletic performance

Sports of all kinds require good physical condition but also a healthy mental state. Sleep is essential for both, making it an important training tool for athletes. During sleep, our bodies repair muscle and tissue damage, fight off infection, process memories and learning, and rebalance hormones and neurochemicals important for well-being. These are all necessary for helping athletes through the physical and mental rigors of training and competition.

Without enough sleep, studies have shown athletes experience more stress, are at greater risk of injury, have slower reaction times, less endurance, are less accurate, and are more prone to getting sick.

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What If I Can’t Get Enough Sleep?

While 7-8 hours of sleep per night is the goal, sometimes life just gets in the way. Travel, work schedules, crying babies, or unexpected events can all impact our sleep. And although you may never fully recover lost sleep, short-term or acute sleep deprivation doesn’t appear to have the long-term effects found with chronic sleep disruption.

That said, when you’re not sleeping enough or well at night, there are measures you can take to mitigate the impacts until you can get back on a healthier sleep schedule.

Take a nap

A short nap up to 30 minutes early in the afternoon has the ability to make you feel more alert and to restore some cognitive function without interfering with sleep the next night. Napping may also improve mood and temper impulsivity.

Eat low-fat plant-based meals and snacks

Eating highly nutritious foods has been shown to help reduce brain fog, difficulty concentrating, and irritability caused by lack of sleep.

Exercise outdoors

Sunlight and moderate aerobic activity can boost mood and energy level, giving you a lift to help you get through your day.

Meditate

While meditation won’t make up for lost sleep, it may improve some measures impacted by lack of sleep, including stress levels and reaction times. Interestingly, regular meditators may need less sleep overall.

Practice yoga nidra

By invoking non-sleep deep rest (NDSR), this brief meditative practice may mitigate some of the stressors of sleep deficit on the mind and body and improve cognitive function.

Develop good sleep habits

This includes establishing a relaxing bedtime routine and going to bed and waking at the same time each day.

While meditation won’t make up for lost sleep, it may improve some measures impacted by lack of sleep, including stress levels and reaction times.

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