We all know that sleep is important, but it is often one of the most overlooked areas of modern health.
Sleep helps to maintain our immune system. Our immune system upholds the integrity of many other parts of our bodies. An unhealthy immune system can lead to conditions like inflammation, joint pain, and illness.
If you’re not getting 8 hours a night, then you need to find out what’s preventing you from getting a good night’s rest. Those who are interested in good health and immunity should make sleep a priority.
The Difference Between Wakefulness and Sleep
Understanding the difference between wakefulness and sleep helps to illuminate the importance of each state of consciousness.
When we’re awake, we direct most of our energy towards sensory processing. Our brain spends most of its time perceiving, organizing, and evaluating the information that we receive through our senses.
When we sleep, the brain remains active. However, since we’re no longer dedicating so much energy to sensory input, the brain takes this time to engage in other activities.
What Happens When We’re Asleep?
Sleep is characterized by the loss of consciousness and reduced responses to external stimuli.1 In 1929, German psychiatrist Hans Berger recognized that there was a significant change in the brain’s electrical activity during the sleep phase.
This change in electrical activity allows the brain to focus on other functions.
Sleep has been shown to increase muscle growth by accelerating the process of repair. Sleep helps the body synthesize protein and release human growth hormone, two compounds required for healthy muscle tissue growth. As much as 75% of human growth hormone is released during sleep.2
During sleep, the brain cleans and refreshes itself. During sleeping hours, the brain eliminates toxic byproducts that accumulate during the day. These toxins are removed through a network known as the glymphatic system.3, 4
Sleep is important for maintaining the health of our musculoskeletal system. Studies have shown that people who sleep either too much or too little are more likely to develop musculoskeletal pain.5
Getting your nightly 8 hours of sleep is a prerequisite if you want to enjoy these health benefits.
Sleep & Human Adaptability
The human body is among the most adaptable systems on the planet. Humans are able to adapt to inhospitable environments, extreme conditions, unhealthy diets, and almost anything else that they’re exposed to.
During waking life, adaptations arise when we face challenges. These challenges could be simple, such as lifting increasingly heavier weights, or fairly extreme, such as being stranded in a harsh environment.
During sleep, the brain develops resilience and helps to produce adaptability in our behaviour. There is a complicated link between sleep and resilience. Current research says that people who get a healthy amount of sleep have a higher capacity to develop resilience to life’s stressors.6,7
How Sleep Affects Your Mind & Body
These are some of the reasons that sleep is so incredibly important for your mental and physical health.
Our immune system helps to fight disease and illness. A weak immune system leads to excess inflammation, which can contribute to issues like arthritis or Alzheimer’s.
Sleep is highly important for our immunity. One study shows that, during sleep, our immune system’s T cells become more effective due to the improved function of compounds known as integrins. Integrins help T cells kill off viral infections, and when we sleep, integrins become better able to interact with our immune system to provide benefit.11
Conversely, if you don’t get enough sleep, you may become more prone to developing immune problems.
Bone, Joint & Skin Health
Collagen is the most abundant protein found in the human body. It’s required for the development and maintenance of our bones, joints, and skin.12
A lack of sleep has been shown to elevate cortisol levels which has a negative effect on collagen production.
Studies also show that a healthy immune system is necessary for the formation of collagen. This research shows that people who don’t get enough sleep may struggle with an impaired immune system that adversely affects the health of their skin.13
Mental & Emotional Health
Anyone who has struggled to get a good night’s sleep while cramming for exams understands how important sleep is for good mental health.
Sleep is linked to an increased frequency of anxiety and depression.14 If you regularly go without sleep, you run the risk of becoming emotionally unstable and struggling with issues like focus and concentration.
Appetite & Weight Gain
Ghrelin is the hormone that signals to our bodies that we’re hungry. People who get less than 8 hours of sleep per night tend to have higher circulating levels of ghrelin in their bodies.15
This means that they’ll have a higher appetite and be more likely to eat excessive amounts of food. This is why, according to the same study, unhealthy sleep habits are linked to obesity.
Making Sure You Get Your 8 Hours
Match Up Your Circadian Rhythm
Your circadian rhythm is your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle. It’s regulated by two hormones, cortisol and melatonin.
Cortisol is a stimulating hormone which is produced in the morning. Melatonin is a relaxing hormone produced when it gets dark out. 16
Dim the Lights at Night
As humans, we evolved going to bed when the sun went down. This is what triggers melatonin production. When we keep artificial lights on, the body doesn’t produce as much melatonin.
Studies have shown that blue light, in particular, is harmful for melatonin production. 17
Soothe Yourself With a Hot Bath or Shower
Having a nice, relaxing hot bath at the end of the night is a good way to wind down and fall asleep easier.
Make sure to exercise during the day. If you’re sedentary, you won’t burn any energy and by the time you go to bed, you’ll have a hard time falling asleep. However, make sure not to exercise too close to bedtime.
Watch Your Caffeine Intake
Caffeine has a half-life of about 5 hours and an elimination half-life that can range up to 9.5 hours. This means that it might still be quite active in your blood up to 9 hours after drinking it. 18
For this reason, you should avoid drinking caffeine much later than 4 PM.
Give Your Mind a Break
If you have trouble sleeping, make sure that your mind’s not overactive. Don’t do any complicated problem-solving at night. Read a simple book, put on some easy listening to music or watch a silly television show.
If you’re lying awake at night, then you really have no excuse not to try meditating. Try a guided meditation app or read a book that encourages you to practice meditation.
Build the Perfect Sleeping Environment
A cool, dark room with no noise is conducive to good sleep. Make sure that you feel comfortable in your sleeping environment so that you can fall asleep easily.
Sleep is incredibly important for your physical and mental wellbeing.
If you're dealing with pain or other health issues then focusing on your sleep can be a powerful tool to help you get back on track.