Whilst most of us appreciate the importance of sleep, very few of us actually get enough. It is recommended that we each get around eight hours of sleep every night. That’s one third of our lives spent sleeping. So why is it so important?
Sleep has a huge effect on health and well-being throughout life and getting enough quality sleep at the right times effects the way you feel while you’re awake.
A good night’s sleep will make us feel more active and alert the next day. Our energy levels are higher, mental awareness is more acute and we are likely to smile more. A restful sleep session not only feels great, but it increases our chances for another good night’s sleep next time we go to bed.
Whilst researchers have long been arguing on why we dream, they do agree on the many processes that occur during sleep, one of which is ‘memory consolidation’. While the body is resting, our brain is busy processing our day, and making connections between events, feelings, experiences and memories. Sleeping time is the most important time for our brain to shape memories and make the connections that can make it easier for us to retrieve those memories in the future.
Even a short sleep session, especially during the day, helps our mind regain focus and we can better tackle those tricky mental challenges that daily life presents. Sleep can also trigger creativity - just remember all those "Eureka" moments you've had, waking up after a short nap.
On the other hand, when our body is lacking sleep, it enters a state of stress; body functions are on high alert and this increases blood pressure and causes the production of stress hormones. Stress hormones then, in turn, make it harder for us to fall asleep. By getting a good night's sleep we can break the circle of stress and counteract its effects on our body.
Now for the science part…
Sleep is the time for our body to repair any physical damage caused by stress, ultraviolet rays and other harmful exposures. During sleep, cells produce more protein which is used in repairing damaged cells, muscle injuries and other traumas.
Amongst the various biochemical substances affected by sleep, serotonin is perhaps the best known: a neurotransmitter that affects our mood. High serotonin levels create the feeling of happiness, and low serotonin levels do the opposite. Making sure we are getting enough sleep, between 7 and 9 hours every night, helps us to regulate serotonin levels, thus helping us to feel happier and be more productive.
Researchers have also found that people who sleep for less than seven hours per night are more likely to be overweight or obese. Sleep helps maintain a healthy balance of the hormones that make you feel hungry (ghrelin) or full (leptin). When you don't get enough sleep, your level of ghrelin goes up and your level of leptin goes down. This makes you feel hungrier than when you're well-rested. In fact, a lack of sleep can increase the sensation of hunger by 25%. So, to put it simply, if you want to stay in shape, get more sleep!