It's a fact - as a society, we do not value sleep, and we are not getting enough of it in order to be our healthiest selves. Like most actions related to our health, making sleep a priority isn't easy, but it is worth it! In this 4-part series about sleep, I'm going to be covering the importance of sleep, how to build a sleep routine, and troubleshooting both falling and staying asleep.
To start off this series all about sleep, we are going to first discuss why it is so critical to our health that we get enough sleep.
Importance of Sleep
Sleep plays a huge role in every aspect of our health, including:
Healthy brain function and emotional health
Hormonal regulation - specifically cortisol and insulin
Fitness and nutrition goals
Healing of damaged cells
Immune system health
Bodily systems repair and protection
Regulating hunger and hunger hormones
If we don't get enough sleep, we put ourselves at risk for a host of issues including an inability to think clearly; medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, and strokes; poor energy throughout the day; anxiety and depression; frequent sickness; and sugar or junk food cravings. There's even studies that have evaluated the role that sleep plays in healing from specific disease, like breast cancer.
Sleep has several purposes in the body, including restoration, synaptic plasticity, and inactivity and energy conservation (via Dr. Sarah Ballantyne in "Go to Bed").
Sleep gives our body total body rejuvenation, as a number of processes take place while we are sleeping including muscle growth, tissues repair, protein synthesis, and growth hormone release. It also allows for our brain to recovery and detoxify, as our brain uses about 20-25% of our total caloric expenditure each day! It needs a break every night to ensure we are able to perform as we need to during the day.
2. Synaptic Plasticity
This fancy term refers to our ability to change. Our brains are flexible like plastic that can be melted and remade into various forms. Our brain is constantly making new connections, which is our brains way of working and "exercising" because the brain is a muscle too. Sleep and synaptic plasticity also allow our brain to encode and consolidate memories and knowledge that we came across during the day when we were awake. I came across the analogy once that when we study, learn, and/or take in information during the day, it's like creating a folder of information and sleep is the motion of filing that folder into the filing cabinet. So if you want to support your memory and learning abilities, don't skimp on sleep!
3. Inactivity and Energy Conservation
Our bodies have evolved in so many ways to meet different demands, and sleep is included in that evolution process. Sleep used to be a process that we used to avoid danger; we became inactive during the most dangerous time - night. Now, we no longer need this as much as we used to, thanks to our modern houses and nice beds. However, the same biological responses still exist in our bodies, which is why we do so well with sleeping at night and being awake during the day. Our metabolism also slows during the night, so it helps conserve energy and allow us to put it to better use during the day.
We can't have a discussion about the importance of sleep without covering the circadian rhythm. The term circadian rhythm refers to the huge slate of biological processes that occur within the human body cycle over a 24 hour clock. Different tasks are assigned to our organs and parts of our brain based on the time of day (and this happens all times of the day - not just during sleep). Circadian rhythm also influences a natural pattern of daily variations in our body temperature, blood pressure, hormones, and digestion. A well aligned circadian "clock" inside of our brain is critical to our overall health!
Hormone release is one of the processes that follows the circadian clock inside of our bodies. For instance, cortisol and melatonin, two of the hormones related to our ability to sleep, depending on a properly functioning circadian clock. Cortisol is our stress hormone, and is what wakes us up in the morning. It reaches its peak in the early hours of the morning, wakes us up, and slowly falls throughout the day. Melatonin is at its peak at night, allowing us to fall asleep, and it slowly drops throughout the night as cortisol starts to rise. Other hormones are also at play during the circadian clock each day, and they affect numerous functions in the body including the immune system, digestion, and insulin response. A proper circadian clock means that our hormones (which basically run our bodies!) are all in line.
When it comes to sleep, it takes just one or two not-so-good nights of sleep to set us off track. Before long, we are off on a bad trail of not getting enough sleep and dragging throughout the day. There's also the myth that we can play "catch up" from the week on the weekends. However, that simply masks the problem. Our sleep debt continues to add up over time; grabbing a few minutes here or there will not fix the problem itself, which is not getting enough sleep during the week when we need it the most!
We also often turn to caffeine and energy drinks or supplements to help mask our chronic fatigue. These products give us the illusion that we are conquering sleep, but are we really? In all actuality, we are simply making the problem worse by simply attaching our body to a vicious cycle of caffeine and poor sleep habits.
All of this leads us to the question - why aren't we getting enough sleep? Is it a priority? If not, why isn't it a priority?
These are all questions everyone needs to answer (myself included!). They aren't easy to answer, but they are definitely necessary. As we will discover as we continue through this series on sleep, sleep plays a major role in our whole body health. It's something that we really can't avoid! When we do get enough sleep, it's easier to manage stress, make good decisions with nutrition, and it's easier to be active too!
Stay tuned for the next post in the series as we discuss how to build a sleep routine.