Our bodies crave sleep. Sleep disruption or a lack of sleep can interfere with both your health and performance.
Studies show that when you get enough sleep, you feel better, live longer and lead a more productive life. That’s because your body uses sleep to refresh its functions. It refreshes the immune system to the digestive system and from your emotional balance to your ability to learn.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a quarter of Americans have occasional difficulty sleeping. Lack of sleep increases your risk of accidents, as well as mental and physical illness. Health experts recommend adults get a night to reap the full benefits of its refreshing effects. Understanding the impact of sleep on your health and performance is important for your success and well-being.
First of all, let’s examine well known culprits in causing problems with your sleep. Most people experience an off night every now and then. However, when you frequently experience a bad night’s sleep, then there may be an underlying problem, such as:
There are ways to help your body and mind get “in the mood” for a good night’s sleep. So, even with an underlying problem, you may be able to improve your quality of sleep by adopting what we like to call “good sleep hygiene.” Sleep hygiene refers to specific steps taken to ensure you enjoy a good night’s sleep, including:
We’ve looked at the potential causes of bad sleep and the recommended best practices for a healthy night’s slumber. Now let’s examine the ins and outs of sleep: what our bodies actually do during sleep; how it benefits us and the potential health risks we face without enough of it.
Your circadian rhythm works like a 24-hour internal clock. It is constantly ticking in your brain, telling you when to sleep and when to wake. Your body needs rest at regular intervals, and the pattern is often referred to as a sleep/wake cycle.
For most adults, there is a dip in energy in the wee hours of the morning between 2:00 a.m. and 4:00 a.m. That is the time when most of us are in a deep sleep. We feel this dip again in the afternoon sometime between 1:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. These generalities can differ for some people who are naturally more awake at night or tend to wake earlier in the morning than most. Those who are getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep a night are less affected by these natural dips and rises of energy. However, those with sleep deprivation are very sensitive to these dips and rises with more drastic feelings of either alertness or sleepiness.
Other factors can affect your circadian rhythm, such as the darkness of your surroundings. Darkness triggers a sleepy feeling and releases melatonin to make your body tired. That can affect people who have to work night shifts as their bodies crave dark to sleep. Regular sleep habits help to improve your natural circadian rhythms by sleeping at night and waking in the morning at the same time every day.
Sleep rhythm can be disrupted when we want to sleep in later and go to bed later on the weekends. Other factors that can interfere with your circadian rhythm include daylight saving time, jet lag, and frequently staying up too late.
When you interfere with your circadian rhythm, you see changes to energy patterns, which interfere with your ability to concentrate and be active. Our bodies also naturally change our circadian rhythms through our lives. Lifestyle changes that may impact sleep include sleeping with a partner or having a child. For all of us, the key is creating good sleep habits to provide regular sleep.
While sleeping, you experience two basic phases of sleep that are linked to your brain activity. You can flip between these two phases throughout the night until you finally fall into deep sleep known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.
Non-REM sleep has three different stages and is the time your body transitions from being awake to falling to sleep.
First, you experience a light sleep when your body slows its heartbeat, breathing, and eye movements. You feel your muscles relax, and your brain waves slow down.
As you enter the next stage of non-REM sleep, your breathing and heart beat continues to slow down with further muscle relaxation. During this stage, your body drops in temperature and all eye movement stops. Your brain wave activity slows but still has some brief electrical activity.
Finally, you enter “slow wave sleep”—a deep sleep when your heartbeat and breathing are at their slowest, and you are completely relaxed. During this stage, you’re less likely to wake up. About 90 minutes into this stage of sleep, REM usually occurs.
At this time, you experience rapid eye movement, mixed frequency brain wave activity that is much like what you experience when you are awake, and breathing becomes irregular and fast. You also return to waking level heart rate and blood pressure. This is the time that most people dream, and you actually become temporarily paralyzed so that your body is unable to act out the activity in your dreams.
According to sleep expert Dr. Matthew Walker, sleep plays a major role in maintaining our vital functions while improving our emotional and creative abilities. Sleeping allows our cells and tissues to recover from the day, undergoing a nightly restoration of repairing tissue, generating muscle, and synthesizing protein. Without sleep, these functions do not occur.
Sleep experts have shown the positive effects that sleep has on our well-being, health, and productivity, increasing our functions both mentally and physically while allowing us to increase our odds of living longer.
Scientists and medical professionals are constantly studying health risks and what we need to do to stay healthy. Since sleep is a basic necessity, you’d think determining the risks associated with sleep deprivation would be easy to discover. However, it is complicated because many conditions related to lack of sleep often take a long time to develop and tend to have other risk factors associated.
We all want to live a long and healthy life, even though most of us don’t do as much as we can to lead the healthiest life. If you continue to burn the candle at both ends, lack of sleep can have a significantly negative impact on your health.
According to a Harvard review on sleep and its impacts on health, even two or three hours less sleep can have a drastic negative effect. Without the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night, you increase the risk of these health conditions:
All of these findings offer a compelling argument to stick to a strict sleep schedule, but there is even more evidence that sleep affects more than just your health.
Dr. Walker also found that sleep plays a critical role in learning. Sleep allows us to use our brains effectively like a computer: processing, storing and transferring information. Sleep allows us to take memories made during the day and "replay" them to stabilize memories. During this process, your brain strengthens strong memories and weakens others. Dr. Walker’s research explains how sleep preps and maintains our brain to learn and function effectively.
Sleep prepares the brain to form memories and collect new information in the form of ideas, actions or images. It allows you to put this information together and create new memories. However, without proper sleep, your brain is unable to receive new information, effectively impairing learning.
Proper sleep allows the brain to retain and store new information in your short-term memory. Your brain works as a "save button" when you sleep after a long day of taking in new information. Without sleep, the brain is unable to form these memories effectively, as it is not provided with enough time to fully “save” your memories. Being awake longer than 16 hours seems to strip the brain’s ability to manage the storage of short-term information.
Information Transfer and Long-Term Memories
Learning requires long-term memories as well. Sleep facilitates the storage of long-term memories, so what you learn is stored permanently for future reference. This optimizes your brain’s ability to store, search for, and retrieve information as it is required. Hence, without proper sleep, you can experience memory impairment, which leads to loss of memory overnight.
Proper sleep improves athletic performance and provides better speed, accuracy, and reaction time. Sleep helps your body recover from the strain that physical activity puts on your muscles and tissues. The performance-enhancing benefits of sleep include:
Gatorade also reported that peak power is impaired, isokinetic performance decreases significantly, and mean and total sprint time decreases with reduced sleep. Lack of sleep also brought up psychological and cognitive changes such as confusion, lack of vigor, fatigue, and total mood disturbance.
Sleep also plays a crucial role in academic performance. Erratic sleep due to all-nighters, challenging schedules, and the tendency to sleep in when time allows all fuel problems with sleep.
According to Brigham and Women’s Hospital, sleep problems exist for students because having a regular bedtime is just as important as getting the recommended eight hours of sleep per night. They found that going to sleep and waking up consistently affected average school grades for those with regular sleep schedules. However, they did not find differences between students who slept longer.
The same study found that students’ circadian clocks ran three hours later than students with regular sleep schedules. That means when trying to write exams and attend classes, it was actually 6 a.m. in the student’s brain when the body expects to be sleeping. Students were also releasing melatonin 2.6 hours later, adding to circadian challenges. Because of their different waking hours, students with irregular sleep schedules also expose themselves to more light from devices such as cell phones and computers, which keeps their sleep schedules askew.
All in all, researchers found that an irregular sleep schedule was related to lower GPAs.
Not Enough Sleep
There’s still stock in the belief that not enough sleep also contributes to poor academic performance, according to a collaborative study by William E. Kelly, Kathryn E. Kelly, and Robert C. Clanton. Their findings show that students who slept at least nine hours had higher GPAs compared to those who slept less than six hours. Those with less sleep were more likely to show signs of anxiety and neurotic feelings, and even experienced hallucinations and lacked creativity.
As already mentioned, memory processing and retention during sleep are imperative to the learning process. So, students who cram during an all-nighter are actually missing the most important step of memorization: sleep.
Work Less, Sleep More
You can be more successful and get more work done when you have more rest. Deliberate rest allows the brain to become more productive with many creative thinkers of the past choosing to work in short four-hour periods, instead of a full eight hours. This process actually allows your brain to kick start when you return to work again. A full night of sleep allows you to work with improved problem-solving and decision-making skills.
If you have been undervaluing sleep, it is never too late to make lifestyle changes to improve your quality of sleep. Proper sleep hygiene helps you achieve better health, performance, and happiness.
If you experience constant sleep disturbances after trying these tips, speak to your doctor as soon as possible. A medical professional can identify the potential issue(s) and recommend sleep treatments and/or strategies.
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