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“The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep” – E. Joseph Cossman
We spend a major chunk of our time trying to get adequate rest. Sleep is a natural state of mind and body marked by reduced consciousness, alertness, movement, and interaction with our body and environment. The way we feel about our day in the mornings depends a lot on the amount and quality of sleep we get at night. When we are sleeping, our brain not only gets a break from being overstimulated but also prepares to take on the challenges that we may face, by developing new neural networks and condensing learning and memory. Sleep is a fundamental need.
The health benefits of good sleep
Sleep researchers, psychologists, neuroscientists, and evolutionary biologists have all attempted to understand the neurophysical, psychological, emotional, cellular, molecular, and evolutionary aspects of sleep. While there’s still a lot more to learn about this, there’s plenty of existing scholarship highlighting that a good night’s sleep provides many physical and psychological benefits and is required for general well-being.
1. Mental health implications
Sleep and mental health share a kind of symbiotic relationship. Sleep problems can be a result of mental health issues. Conversely, sleep habits can be a cause of mental health issues.
Sleep regulates the healthy amount of the happy hormone serotonin in the body. Lack of serotonin is a common pattern in people who experience mental illnesses like depression. Healthy serotonin management can make us more resilient.
Sleep loss has been linked to emotional reactivity, irritability, volatility, and emotional disturbance. Sleep also has an effect on the reactivity of the amygdala, which is the centre for emotions, emotional behaviour, and motivation. Sleep deprivation leads to an overactive amygdala, which is the central computer in our brains for emotions and motivation
Sleep disturbance has also been linked to aggressive behaviour and suicidal thoughts. Based on a meta-analysis of randomised-control trials, researchers were able to show that, on average, improving sleep quality had an effect on mental health, including clear evidence that improving sleep reduces depression, anxiety and stress.
⚠️If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, help is at hand. Please visit this list of helplines and resources for different countries.
2. Improves memory and learning
Sleep improves memory and learning through the process of consolidation. When we sleep, our brain actively consolidates the new information we learn during the day. This enhances memory, prevents it from disruption in response to interferences, and helps us build new skills.
Sleep deprivation causes attention deficits and this can explain the decline in memory. Deficits in visual attention or processing have a significant impact on memory capacity among sleep-deprived individuals.
3. Better decision-making
Sleep researchers have pointed out that improved sleep can lead to better decision-making. On the other hand, sleep deprivation can negatively affect decision-making and individuals are likely to make risky decisions in spite of suffering losses.
This is because being sleep-bereft propels a greater activation of the nucleus accumbens when the risky choice was selected, suggesting that one is likely to have greater anticipation of reward even when the stakes are unchanged. Moreover, sleep deprivation leads to a reduced reaction to loss. This culminates in poor decision-making.
4. Helps reduce stress
Sleep helps reduce stress by restoring and calming our mind and body and sharpens our problem-solving skills, concentration, and judgement. A good sleep cycle also keeps a check on cortisol which is widely implicated in stress
5. Physical health implications
Sleep may contribute to longevity by allowing the body and mind to repair and recover from daily stress and by reducing inflammation, which puts us at a greater risk of developing heart conditions, stroke, diabetes, and arthritis. Getting a good night’s sleep can help curb this inflammation.
Sleep regulates the production and uptake of melatonin. Recent research has found evidence that melatonin helps in protecting us against cancer. And, by maintaining a balanced sleep schedule, melatonin can be regulated well.
Sleep duration and cardiometabolic risk share a relationship and this is particularly pronounced in young adults.
We have a significant chunk of epidemiological evidence that prolonged sleep disruption can lead to negative health outcomes. Research has shown that people who work night shifts on a regular basis are more vulnerable to concerning conditions such as cancer, obesity and type-2 diabetes. This is a correlational connection. A study, which included 75,000 registered nurses and followed their progress for 22 years, found that cardiovascular disease mortality was 11% greater in women who’d done over five years of rotating night shifts. Nurses who had done 15 or more years of night shifts had a 25% higher risk of lung cancer.
6. Influences brain plasticity
Brain plasticity is the ability of the brain to modify and change its structure and function according to environmental changes. Plasticity is important in brain recovery after a stroke or trauma.
Sleep and brain plasticity have been linked and researchers have considered that sleep should be important for brain development and synaptic plasticity during adulthood but particularly during early life or periods of rapid brain development. There’s still a lot to learn and discover about this connection, but it’s evident that sleep is crucial for neurological health and well-being.
7. Reduces accidents
Lack of good sleep has been implicated in various road accidents. A research study on sleep-related vehicle accidents pointed out that out of all the vehicle accidents to which the authorities were summoned, 16% were sleep-related accidents in southwest England and 20% on midland motorways. Adequate sleep helps us stay alert and respond to a crisis with better judgement and insight, thus reducing the possibility of being harmed in an accident.
8. Improves social life
Sleep has an effect on our perception and attention, and therefore, improves our social cognition. Adequate sleep can positively contribute to our social life by helping us stay alert in conversations, interpret social cues better, improve our motivation to engage in social activities, and by retaining our focus on the conversations.
9. Boosts creativity
Sleep induces a spur of creativity by categorising, recognising, and reorganising our learned skills and memories that can in turn boost creativity. Studies have shown that REM sleep increases the creative process and creative problem-solving, for they enhance the formation of associative networks in the brain and the integration of unassociated information.
10. Aids weight management
Sleep aids in weight management by regulating ghrelin and leptin. These hormones directly impact our appetite. An inadequate amount of sleep can have an impact on one’s food intake. Studies have shown an increase in food intake in response to short-term sleep restrictions.
[Chaput, JP., Tremblay, A. Insufficient Sleep as a Contributor to Weight Gain: An Update. Curr Obes Rep 1, 245–256 (2012).]
There is research evidence highlighting the correlation between sleep and obesity.
One study looked at people aged 5-10 years old and showed that insufficient sleep was the most important risk factor for obesity compared to other influences, like parental obesity, income level, breastfeeding, physical activity, television viewing, and so on. Another study showed that children who sleep for less than 10 hours are more vulnerable to obesity than children who sleep for more than 10 hours, being at an 89% greater risk.
So for kids, the right amount of sleep is crucial. With adults, it seems that those who sleep for less than 5 hours are more vulnerable to obesity than adults who sleep for more than 5 hours. Cappuccio, et al. mention that there’s a 55% greater risk.
11. Boosts athletic performance
Sleep aids in boosting athletic performance by supporting the body while it repairs itself during sleep and increasing the level of alertness that athletes need. Short sleep duration and insufficient restorative sleep can impact physical performance, cognitive capacities, and recovery from athletic exertion and injury.
Commonly asked questions about good sleep
Is it healthy to sleep all day?
On average, we require 7-9 hours of sleep every day. This remains consistent whether we are morning larks or night owls. Sleeping all day is a sign of irregular sleep and can have various underlying causes and symptoms. This should be addressed with a sleep specialist.
Does oversleeping make you tired?
Yes, while oversleeping occasionally may result in temporary disorientation and confusion, persistent oversleeping can have greater ramifications on the body’s circadian rhythm and increase the risk of insomnia, depression, and physiological symptoms.
Why am I still tired after sleeping?
Good sleep consists of sleep duration, sleep continuity, and sleep timing. Being tired even after getting enough sleep is an indicator of a disturbance in sleep quality or sleep timing. Working on a healthy sleep routine can help manage this better. But it could also be a sign of a physical health issue such as a thyroid disorder, so it is worth asking your general practitioner to get some tests done.
How can I fall asleep in 10 seconds?
The time it takes to fall asleep is a subjective concept that depends on a lot of factors like health conditions, sleep routine and mental health. Relaxation exercises like visualisation techniques and breathing methods, if done consistently, can help in falling asleep faster over time.
Are there any tools and methods to improve sleep quality and duration?
One of the best ways to improve the duration, continuity, and quality of sleep is to work on sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene refers to consistent and beneficial steps that have a positive impact on sleep and are focused on making the body and the environment more sleep-friendly. The Wysa app can be a useful resource here. It offers dedicated self-help tools to build a healthy and consistent sleep routine by allowing us to customise our sleep hygiene habits and fall asleep quicker with its calming sleep stories. These sleep stories can help relax the mind, reduce the time we spend ruminating over stressful events, and facilitate quick and lasting sleep.