Why Is Sleep Important?
Here at Utmost Me, we get asked this question a lot.
We often reply by quoting one of our favourite sleep scientists, Matthew Walker, director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley. In his best-selling book 'Why We Sleep', he has examined the complex role of sleep in our lives.
Walker feels that sleep is the most important factor for our physical and mental well being – more important than exercise, more important than diet, and even more important than our economic circumstances. And he warns of a "catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic" because we're not getting enough of it. "Without sleep," he says, "there is low energy and disease. With sleep, there is vitality and health. More than 20 large scale epidemiological studies all report the same clear relationship: the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life."
Science on why we need sleep
Dr. Walker is not alone in the scientific world in recognising the importance of sleep. The NHS agree, saying that "it's now clear that a solid night's sleep is essential for a long and healthy life."
The science on sleep is pretty conclusive. Getting enough of it promotes healthy brain function and emotional well-being, improves your physical health, and improves your daytime performance and productivity. Getting too little of it can be debilitating to both your physical and mental health, and can actually be dangerous.
The importance of REM sleep and quality sleep
During sleep, you cycle between alternating periods of REM sleep and non-REM sleep. REM is an acronym for Rapid Eye Movement. When you are experiencing REM sleep, your eyes move quickly back and forth beneath your eyelids in different directions, as if they were watching something.
REM sleep is a part of the greater sleep cycle that first occurs about 90 minutes after you fall asleep. The periods of REM sleep then reoccur during the night, getting progressively longer each time. This is when all of your dreams occur.
Periods of non-REM sleep, which precede REM sleep, are important because the body uses these periods of deep sleep to repair and regrow tissues, build bone and muscle, and strengthen the immune system.
Periods of REM sleep are more associated with keeping the brain healthy. This period of sleep stimulates the brain regions we use to learn things. Many studies have confirmed the importance of REM sleep for being able to learn and retain certain mental skills.
For example, these studies have shown that people who were taught a skill and then deprived of non-REM sleep could remember what they learned after sleeping. People deprived of REM sleep could not.
Good sleep health depends on experiencing sufficient amounts of both non-REM sleep (deep sleep) and REM sleep (dreaming) every night.
How much sleep is enough?
Sometimes, when the conversation turns to sleep, you hear someone say, "Oh, you people are making too big a fuss about sleep…I get by just fine on five hours of sleep a night."
It is very, very rare that someone only needs 5 hours of sleep a night. The average adult needs between 7 and 9 hours.
Here's what medical science – in this case the Mayo Clinic, one of the most prestigious hospitals in the United States – says about how much sleep people need at different ages:
|Age group||Recommended amount of sleep|
14 to 17 hours a day
About 10 hours at night, plus 4 hours of naps
About 11 to 12 hours at night, plus a 1- to 2-hour afternoon nap
3 to 5 years
10 to 13 hours
6 to 13 years
9 to 11 hours
14 to 17 years
8 to 10 hours
7 to 9 hours
Other factors that can influence how much sleep you need include:
- Sleep quality - if you find that you wake up often during the night, you're not getting the quality sleep you need. Spending eight hours in bed does equal "quality sleep" if your sleep is being constantly interrupted.
- Ageing - contrary to what you may have heard, older adults need about the same amount of sleep as younger adults. What can gives the illusion of "needing less sleep" is that older adults sleep more lightly than younger adults.
- Pregnancy - changes in the body increase your need for sleep.
- Previous sleep deprivation - if you have been consistently not getting enough sleep, and have in fact reached the medical threshold of "sleep deprivation," the amount of sleep your body needs to recover and stay healthy increases.
What happens when you don't get enough sleep?
Most people have been told about the importance of getting enough sleep. According to a 2016 study, over a third of Brits aren't getting enough sleep, and self-report that they are trying to "get by" on five hours of sleep or less per night.
Medical science has a name for this syndrome: sleep deprivation. If you're one of the people who believe that you're "getting by" with this little sleep, here are a few facts about what sleep deprivation does to the mind and body:
- It impairs your judgment. The more sleep-deprived you become, the more liable you are to believe that you're "handling it," and doing fine. Chances are you aren't.
- It makes you less intelligent. Sleep deprivation impairs attention, concentration, reasoning, alertness, and problem solving. In addition, it impairs your learning abilities, because if your brain can't consolidate and organise what you've learned during REM sleep, it can't retain new information and add it to your memory.
- It makes you depressed. Clinical studies have shown that if you sleep less than six hours a night, you are five times more likely to develop clinical depression.
- It increases your accident risk. Lack of sleep is cited as a major cause of over 100,000 accidents each year. It's actually more dangerous than drunk driving.
- It increases your risk of serious illness. Sleep deprivation increases your risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, and other diseases.
- It decreases your sex drive. One of the most common symptoms of sleep deprivation is lowered libido, and a lack of interest in sex.
- It prematurely ages your skin. Sleep deprivation causes lowered levels of cortisol and human growth hormone, which can lead to damaged skin, more wrinkles, and permanent dark circles under your eyes.
- Finally, sleep deprivation makes you fat. Lack of sleep increases hunger and appetite, which in turn increases your risk of becoming obese. Sleep deprivation also increases your cravings for high-fat, high-carbohydrate foods.
Why is sleep important for mental health?
Better sleep health isn't just good for your physical health, it's good for your mental health as well.
The benefits of sleep include being in a better mood
First, getting sufficient sleep improves your overall mood, and thus your attitude towards and approach to life. Think back to your recent "grumpy days." How many of them occurred on days when you didn't get enough sleep the night before?
Getting enough sleep won't guarantee that you'll have a constantly sunny disposition, but it'll help. Besides, better sleep helps to regulate your emotions and keep them under control, so it might help to eliminate incidents such as snapping at your boss on one of those "grumpy days."
Sleep health equals mental health
Better sleep improves your cognition, your attention, and your decision-making abilities. Have you ever felt after a sleepless night that you just can't focus, or concentrate? Well, that's because you really can't. After a good night's sleep, you can. Simple as that.
Also, better sleep improves your memory. When you sleep, your brain processes and consolidates your memories from the day. If you don't get enough sleep, those memories are not stored correctly, and can be lost.
Getting more sleep can even improve your sex life
The National Sleep Foundation tells us that up to 26% of people report that their sex lives have suffered because they're just too tired to have sex, or enjoy it when they do. Sleep deprivation in men has been shown to be associated with lower testosterone levels.
Again, as we said about mood, getting enough sleep won't guarantee that your sex life will improve, and turn it into the wild romp of your dreams. But let's face it – feeling awake enough to have sex in the first place is a good first step in that direction.
Natural sleep aids and herbal sleeping tablets - can they help to end sleep problems?
If you’re having trouble sleeping, after reading all of this you may feel a sudden urge to call your doctor and ask him or her to give you prescription sleep meds, so you can get more sleep.
Prescription sleep aids are not for long term use, and they come with a long list of undesirable side effects.
Besides, there is a better way to overcome sleep problems – to get back into a pattern of falling asleep quickly and easily, sleeping through the night without disruption, and waking up feeling rested and refreshed.
We recommend that you introduce a healthy sleep routine and team it with a natural sleep aid or herbal sleeping tablet such as Neuro Rest for the first few days – combining the two will help you back into a healthy sleep routine.
Read our case study on how Joanna combined a bedtime routine with Neuro Rest to get back to sleep health.
Information about Neuro Rest
Neuro Rest, our natural sleep aid is an advanced night time supplement. It’s 100% natural, vegan, and gluten-free and contains ingredients such as 5-HTP from Griffonia seed extract, taurine, magnesium, Montmorency cherry, biotin, tryptophan and chamomile.
After using it to overcome their sleep problems, 97% of our surveyed customers report that they slept better, 77% report that they were able to fall asleep faster, and 78% report that they wake up during the night less frequently.
Visit the Utmost Me Sleep Blog for more articles on everything related to sleep; from bedtime routines to sleep nutrition.
The information shared in Utmost Me articles are not intended to replace qualified health care professional advice and are not intended as medical advice. Always seek the advice of your GP or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding any medical condition.