The effects of a good night's sleep
Just like every other animal on the planet, we humans require sleep – along with food, water and oxygen – to survive. And believe us, a good night’s sleep is just as important as the other elements on that list.
We spend on average one-third of our lives asleep, and the quality of that time has a huge part to play in our overall health. So much so that it is thought that around 90% of people who suffer from chronic lack of sleep also have another health disorder – ranging from diabetes through to heart disease. Sleep is in fact of such importance to our bodies that if deprived of both food and sleep, it would be the lack of sleep that kills us first – taking approximately 10 days for a sleep-starved body to shut down in comparison to two weeks without sustenance.
Of course most of us are all too aware of the value of a good night’s sleep. So why then do so many of us fail to make it a top priority?
Millions of people across the world are thought to be sleep deprived, particularly in the UAE, where 65% of us admit to not getting enough rest.
On average, we should be looking to get between seven and nine hours per night, but the reality is that during the work week we are coming in on average quite a bit under that.
In the UAE 65% of people admit to not getting enough rest
So how does poor sleep or a lack of sleep effect our bodies, and how a consistently good sleeping schedule does wonders for us.
The effects of poor quality sleep
For starters, it can make you gain weight. When we sleep, our body regulates our hormones levels – in particular the hormones ghrelin, which stimulates hunger, and leptin, which suppresses appetite.
Studies have shown that a lack of sleep leads to elevated levels of ghrelin and depleted stocks of leptin, which can result in a poor diet – particularly as ghrelin is thought to stimulate cravings for those unhealthy foods. There have been plenty of studies on the issue, and findings indicate that those who regularly sleep less than six hours a day are 30% more likely to become overweight than those who sleep on average between seven and nine hours.
Denying our bodies’ cells the chance to recuperate also causes a breakdown of our natural defences which, aside from aesthetic issues such as robbing the skin of time to repair and making it age faster, can lead to chronic health issues including heart disease, heart failure, high blood pressure, diabetes and strokes.
On the cognitive front, the impact is just as severe. Lack of sleep has been shown to impair memory function, blur our judgement, and increase our stress levels. It can even lead to depression – as a recent Sleep in America poll found out – pointing to far higher rates of the condition in those who slept for less than six hours a night. On the more extreme end, sufferers of insomnia are five times more likely to develop depression compared to those who sleep normally.
It would take approximately 10 days for a sleep-starved body to shut down
When it comes to sleep and brain health, a lack of sleep can have quite the effect on our IQ levels. This one is a true medical fun fact, because according to research, each hour short of eight hours of sleep a night could knock one point off a person’s IQ. That means three or four nights in a row of around five hours of sleep can bring those IQ levels down by as much as 12 IQ points, which means if the research is accurate, this would have a tremendous impact on our mental capacities.
The Whitehall II study, carried out by British researchers at University College London, involved 10,000 participants over more than 20 years. The study found that those who had cut their sleeping from seven hours to five hours or less over an extended period faced a 1.7 fold increased risk in mortality from all causes, and twice the increased risk of death from a cardiovascular problem in particular.
What you’ll gain from a good night of Z’s
Though it may feel like down-time, the time you spend asleep is in fact some of your most productive – insofar as your body is concerned, that is. During sleep, your body goes through a complete cycle of repair and replenishment.
Just as a poor night’s sleep leaves us weary and worn down, getting a good night’s rest has the power to re-energise our bodies and give our brains a boost. The body is actually hard at work while we rest, replenishing hormone stocks, increasing the blood flow to our muscles, repairing tissue and eradicating waste from our cells to ensure we are fighting fit the following day.
In fact, each of our body’s cells are being completely repaired and restored, healing the natural damage that has occurred the day before – hence the battered and beaten feeling we get when we skip a good night’s sleep. All of our hormone levels are restored, including cortisol, essential for regulating our stress response, and growth hormone, which is vital for growth and development. And so too is our immune system getting a top-up, making us far better equipped to fight off infection.
For those among us who always aim to look our best, you’ll be interested to hear that cell refresh has a big impact on how you look. In a recent study by the British Medical Journal, a group of Swedish investigators took photographs of a group of well-rested subjects and a group who had a restless night’s sleep: the photographs were then shown to 65 untrained observers who rated them and unanimously found that the sleep-deprived participants looked “less healthy” and “less attractive” than those who slept well. Yes, there really is such a thing as beauty sleep!
Our brains also go through this incredible period of restoration. Our brain cells produce a waste by-product as we use them throughout the day, which is then flushed to the liver for elimination by cerebrospinal fluid. When we sleep, our brain’s neurons shrink by half, making the fluid channels wider and speeding up the whole process – which is exactly why we awake feeling refreshed and alert after a quality night’s kip.
Last – and by absolutely no means least – sleep’s biggest health benefit is its ability to reduce inflammation within our bodies. Inflammation is linked to all of those devastating non-communicable diseases (NCDs) – heart disease, stroke, diabetes, arthritis, cancer, and many more – and research indicates that those of us who get over six hours of sleep a night have far lower levels of inflammatory proteins in our blood than those who sleep for less.
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Graham Simpson, MD is Chief Medical Officer and Founder of Intelligent Health, a preventive medical centre located in Jumeirah, Dubai. He graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is board certified in Internal Medicine and Emergency Medicine. As a founding member of the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) Dr Simpson is also a licensed homeopath.