The Many Ways that Sleep Affects Our Daily Lives
By Peter Mutuc
Sleep is no longer the mystery that it used to be. Today, most people are aware of how important sleep is for both short and long-term health. The mystery is this: Why are we so dependent on healthy sleep? Understanding how sleep affects our daily lives starts with understanding how much sleep you actually need on a daily basis.
7 to 9 Hours of Nightly Sleep is Best for Adults Aged 18 to 64 Years Old
This is according to the National Sleep Foundation who released a guideline on the optimum amount of daily sleep based on age. For most adults, they advise sleeping for 7 to 9 hours on the reg. And if you’re a healthy adult who doesn’t have insomnia (or any other sleep disorders), you’re probably already getting the recommended amounts. If not, that’s probably why you don’t wake up feeling good in the morning. Whether you’re getting way less or way more than the recommended daily dose of sleep, you’re bound to feel the same immediate ill effects:
- Impaired mental cognition
- Physical weakness
- The inability to concentrate or focus
- Impaired memory
- Slower reflexes
- Irrationality or being too emotional
Lack of sleep and too much sleep are just two sides of the same coin that is unhealthy or poor quality sleep. The effects are much stronger when you get too little sleep as compared to when you get too much, but both come with the same immediate ill effects listed above. In short, you’re much more likely to get into a car accident when you’ve only slept for just 3 hours than if you’re just a bit groggy from having slept for 10. Either way, it’s not a good idea to drive or operate heavy machinery when you haven’t had a healthy night’s sleep.
But why is this so? What can’t our brains function normally without healthy sleep?
Sleep “Resets” the Brain Regularly
Plenty of scientifically-backed theories provide different insights into what happens to the brain when we sleep. No less than the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School has said that sleep might be as important to overall health and wellness as proper nutrition and regular exercise.
One theory speculates that the brain is not at all resting while we sleep, but is instead busy “consolidating new memories”, forming new neural connections, and severing old unused connections. And it’s a theory that makes sense. It could certainly explain why it’s so hard to process new information and remember things when you’re heavily sleep deprived.
Memory and cognition is just one part of the puzzle. In a recent discovery that observed the effects of sleep in the lymphatic system, a neurologist has found that brain toxins are cleared out much more rapidly when we’re asleep than when we’re conscious. The reason for this is that when we sleep, the lymphatic system of the brain opens up and the space between our brain cells expand considerably. All that allows the cerebrospinal fluid to clear most of the toxins that have settled in the brain, some of which are known chemical precursors to Alzheimer’s.
Think of sleep as your brain’s ‘reset button’, a mandatory regular maintenance period that it needs in order to function in optimum condition.
Healthy and Regular Sleep Prevents Long-Term Physical and Mental Illness
Experts have also found many correlations between unhealthy sleep and a staggering number of diseases/disorders. While the rest of the body may not need sleep in the same way that the brain does, there’s no question that your major organ systems are affected by how you sleep. In fact, a number of both recent and past studies have found that chronic insomnia is linked to increased risks of developing diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, and possibly even cancer. Researchers speculate that those long-term effects probably have to do with the hormonal imbalances that happens when we stray from the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle.
Additionally, when it comes to overall mortality, people who slept under 6 hours were most at risk, and right next to them were those who slept for over 9 hours. Those who slept in the sweet spot of 7 to 9 hours were the least at risk of premature death.
Ensure Healthy Sleep via Proper Sleep Hygiene
The best way to ensure that you regularly get the optimum amount of sleep is by practicing sleep hygiene: a collection of practices and habits designed to make it easier for you to get to sleep and stay asleep. It mainly consists of simple practices that can be done by almost anyone. Here are some of the most important practices/habits that can increase your personal sleep hygiene:
- Your bed should be strictly for sleep and sex ONLY. No other activities may be tied to your bed. This allows your bed to act as a trigger for sleep and relaxation in your brain.
- Get used to falling asleep in the dark. This is both easy to accomplish and very effective at giving you healthier sleep. Use blackout curtains or just cover your eyes with a comfy mask. The lack of light during bedtime allows the sleep hormone, melatonin, to do a better job of lulling you to sleep.
- Exercise regularly, but never too close to bedtime. Give your body some time to cool down before you go to bed, otherwise, you’ll be too stimulated to even feel sleepy. However, if you exercise regularly and do it at least 6 hours before bedtime, it could actually improve your sleep by as much as 60%.
- Don’t eat food, drink coffee/alcohol, or take other stimulants too close to bedtime. Even if you could sleep right after, chances are it’ll be disrupted in the middle of the night.
- Ditch your 10-year old mattress for something new. Reuse your old, poky spring mattress and get a bed that can cradle you to sleep like a baby. There’s no question that the condition of your mattress can affect how well you sleep.
Consistently adopting these habits related to sleep hygiene can allow you to sleep better, more regularly, and more consistently with your natural sleep-wake cycle.