Many of us often find ourselves sacrificing hours of sleep to get work done. This may help us meet deadlines and be more productive in the short term, but it comes at a hefty price. Just like eating, drinking and breathing, sleep is an essential foundation for good health and well-being throughout our lives.
The way we feel while we’re awake partly relies on the processes that happen while we’re asleep. We all know that when we are sleep deprived, we are lower on energy, find it harder to focus and are more likely to cross out our designated exercise time too. We find ourselves craving foods high in carbohydrates and sugars and are more likely to be irritable.
While we sleep, our bodies work to support healthy brain function and maintain our physical health. We need sleep to regenerate and rejuvenate certain parts of our bodies, especially the brain, so that it can continue to function optimally.
Although some believe we can train our bodies to function on minimal sleep, this is unfortunately an urban myth. We advise these people to quit while they’re ahead. Even one sleepless night can have a detrimental effect on the rest of the week.
The dangers of chronic sleep deprivation
Prolonged lack of sleep has adverse effects on our overall health and makes us prone to serious medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
But what exactly happens to our biology when we are sleep deprived?
- Our hunger hormone levels increase
Sleep helps maintain a healthy balance of the hormones that are responsible for feelings of hunger (ghrelin) or satiation (leptin). When we are sleep-deprived, our ghrelin levels increase and leptin levels decrease, making us feel hungrier than usual.
And as our cravings for high carbohydrate, sugary foods take their toll, sleep deficiency also increases our risk of obesity. One recent study found that with each hour of sleep lost, the risk of obesity increases in teenagers. Similar correlations between obesity and sleep have been identified in other age groups too.
- Our blood sugar levels increase
Sleep impairs our body’s insulin sensitivity, making us more insulin-resistant. Why does this matter? Insulin-resistance is serious because insulin’s main role is to regulate our bodies blood sugar levels. Insulin signals for muscle, fat, and liver cells in the body to absorb glucose (sugar) from the bloodstream to be used for energy. When we become more insulin resistant, our cells fail to use the hormone efficiently, resulting in high blood sugar levels.
Persistently high blood sugar levels can cause both immediate and long-term problems, increasing risk of type 2 diabetes, coronary artery disease, heart attack and stroke. Highlighting the importance of a good night’s sleep on our health, research from the Obesity Society found that one night of sleep deprivation and six months on a high-fat diet may both impair insulin sensitivity to a similar degree.
- Our immune system weakens
Blood sugar levels aside, sleep is vital for the immune system to function at its best. A prolonged lack of sleep changes the way the immune system defends the body against foreign or harmful substances. This is why when we’re sleep deficient we can be more susceptible to common infections such as the flu or colds.
- We become more anxious
Does anxiety cause sleep deprivation or does sleep deprivation lead to anxiety? Both theories ring true in some way. A lack of sleep is also known to reduce our ability to cope with stressful or demanding situations, and makes us more likely to become anxious or depressed. A growing body of evidence indicates that this is because poor sleep can cause us to perceive events as more stressful than we would otherwise and contributes to mental health problems.
On the other side of the coin, insomnia is a symptom of anxiety, and can exacerbate a person’s condition by rendering them even more anxious as a result of sleepless nights.
Our tendency to magnetise towards caffeine when we’re deprived of zzz’s just worsens the situation. When we can’t sleep at night because of our high caffeine levels, we add oil to the fire and can become trapped in a vicious cycle.
Healthy sleep tips
Getting enough quality sleep at the right times is vital for mental health, physical health, and your quality of life. To start following a better sleep ritual and getting longer, better quality sleep, consider the following tips:
- Wind down before bedtime
Our bodies need time to transition to ‘sleep mode’, so a relaxing activity right before bedtime can be useful to separate your sleep time from stimulating activities that can cause excitement, stress or anxiety that make it more difficult to fall asleep, get sound and deep sleep or remain asleep.
For some people, electronic devices make it harder to fall asleep, as the light emanating from device screens stimulate the brain. We suggest avoiding electronics at least half an hour before bed, as well as if you wake in the middle of the night.
As a mind-calming wind-down routine, try meditating, breathing exercises or gentle body stretches even just for 5 minutes before bed.
- Exercise daily
Exercise can do wonders for a good night’s sleep. Vigorous exercise is best, but even light activity is better than nothing. Exercise at any time of day, just make sure it’s doesn’t come at the expense of your sleep!
- Avoid alcohol, cigarettes, and heavy meals in the evening
Alcohol, cigarettes and caffeine are known for their abilities to disrupt sleep. In addition, eating large or spicy meals before bedtime can cause discomfort from indigestion, making it harder to sleep. Try to avoid eating large meals for two to three hours before bedtime. If you find yourself hungry before bed, a light snack 45 minutes before is recommended.
- Invest in a comfortable mattress
Having a comfortable and supportive mattress is key to a good night’s sleep. If you’ve been using yours for years, it may well have exceeded its life expectancy, which is approximately nine to ten years for most good quality mattresses.
- Prioritise sleep
Remember to prioritise sleep in your daily life and create a consistent routine to ensure you are getting adequate amounts of sleep. You will be less likely to experience high levels of stress, irritability, hunger and you’ll be more focused. Who could say no to that?
Ultimately, sleep is one of the pillars of good health and wellbeing and if you’re struggling to get a good night’s sleep, don’t hesitate to set up an appointment with your doctor. Although sleep deprivation won’t be covered by your health insurance policy, there are some ways to get diagnostic treatment covered to set up an appointment and identify its underlying causes. Contact us to find out more.