The Health Impact of Low-Quality Sleep — and How to Get More, Better Rest

In our fast-paced culture, lack of sleep is not only acceptable but also celebrated. News articles parade high-powered CEOs who allegedly sleep for only 5 hours a night. The ability to grind all day is considered admirable, while those who go to bed early or sleep late are mocked as lazy bores.

That’s all a shame, because sleep is vital to our health. It’s arguably more important than food. We can actually go several weeks without food, but after just 24 hours of sleep deprivation, serious cognitive effects and hyperglycemia set in. That’s because, contrary to popular belief, sleep is anything but a lazy activity. It’s when our bodies do the important work of rebuilding tissues, arming our immune systems, and filing away all the new information we absorbed during the day.

Lack of sleep can cause lasting health issues, especially when we’re already exposed to so many environmental toxins in a hectic society. Read on to learn the negative health effects of poor sleep — and how to start getting a good night’s rest.

Impaired Stress Response

Our body perceives lack of sleep as a threat to its well-being. Even if you “feel fine,” your production of cortisol increases with poor sleep. Cortisol, also called the stress hormone, evolved as a short-term defense mechanism to help us escape from predators. We are not meant to be constantly drenched in it, but when we regularly skip sleep, cortisol builds up in our bodies. This breaks down collagen in our skin, impairs our attention, and raises our blood pressure.

Sleep is also psychologically beneficial, as it gives our brains time to process new memories, resolve conflicts, and escape from the day’s stresses. It’s essentially your reset button — and if you’re not hitting it enough, you’re more likely to feel overwhelmed and anxious. Poor sleep has also been linked to depression, which further hurts our resilience and makes even small stresses feel like catastrophes.

Lower Immunity

People who get less than 6 hours of sleep per night are four times more likely to catch a cold. Our bodies produce their armies of antibodies and cytokines as we sleep. Moreover, regular sleep helps establish a prolonged immune response — essentially our “memory” of which pathogens we know and can fight off.

If we’re not sleeping enough, our defenses are lowered. We simply can’t fight off viruses or bacteria as effectively, even if our immune system recognizes them. Poor sleep’s effect of elevated cortisol can also impair immune function.

Memory and Cognitive Issues

In studies of sleep deprivation, we have found that people experience mood disruption, coordination, and trouble concentrating after just 24 hours without sleep. After 72 hours, they typically become depressed, have paranoid thoughts or even hallucinations, and struggle to perform cognitive tasks or communicate with others.

Unfortunately, low-quality sleep is almost as bad as no sleep in terms of cognitive effects. When you sleep short nights or don’t enter deep REM sleep, you’re less likely to retain the information you learned during the day. That includes skills you developed, important meetings or conversations you had, and details about your life. If you’re finding yourself forgetful or tending to lose your keys, consider if you’re getting enough sleep.

Poor sleep also impairs our focus, which means we find it harder to concentrate on our work or study. Add the impaired memory, and a lack of sleep can truly impair the pursuit of your education or professional goals.

Weight Gain and Tendency to Overeat

Our appetites are regulated by two hormones: ghrelin is the hunger home that encourages us to eat, while leptin is the satiety hormone that tells us we’re full. After a short night’s sleep, our bodies’ ghrelin production increases. We may feel exceptionally hungry during the day. Unfortunately, poor sleep also lowers our leptin levels, so we don’t feel satisfied when we do eat.

This has two negative effects on our health:

(a) We eat too much and/or we eat high-sugar, high-carb foods in an attempt to boost our energy levels. The less we sleep (or the less well we sleep), the more likely we are to put on weight.

This isn’t merely hypothetical. We have already found that obesity levels have risen in countries where the average daily sleep has declined. Considering ghrelin production is known to increase with a lack of sleep, scientists theorize that sleep deprivation is a risk factor for weight gain.

Also, (b) we tend to eat more throughout the day, as well as later into the night, which can impair our sleep. Our bodies need to focus on recharging. Digesting food actually takes a lot of energy. And while we’re sleeping, our metabolism is slower. So, if you go to bed with a full stomach, you’ll likely digest less of it, you may experience acid reflux or indigestion, and any excess will be stored as fat.

That’s not to say that you should go to bed hungry. Your body does need some fuel as it recovers during sleep! Below, we’ll share some ideas for healthy, sleep-inducing snacks.

Poor Tissue Recovery and Muscle Gains

Sleep is when our bodies do the bulk of their healing work. Human Growth Hormone (HGH) stimulates new cell development, collagen production, and muscle repair. Whether you’re healing from a cut or building muscles after a good workout, you need to enter deep stage 3 sleep to reap the benefits of HGH.

That’s why doctors recommend athletes to sleep closer to nine hours per night. And they’re anything but lazy!

The less you sleep, the lower your insulin sensitivity becomes. This means your muscles won’t replenish their glycogen fuel reserves as efficiently. Not only does this boost your cravings for sugary, high-carb foods, but it also hurts your muscle development as your body now must draw upon your muscle tissue as a source of fuel. That will definitely impact both your weight-loss and strength-building goals!

The Keys to Good Sleep Hygiene

Want to avoid these problems and wake up feeling rested? Don’t we all! Our advice: skip the “inspirational” stories of CEOs who sleep only five hours and make friends with your bed. Just follow these sleep hygiene tips to help you drift into a slumber that lasts all night.

No sugar, salty or spicy food, alcohol, or heavy meals less than 2 hours before bed.

Consume a light snack rich in tryptophan, which stimulates melatonin and helps you go to sleep. A handful of nuts or scoop of peanut butter, a banana or apple, avocado toast, or a bowl of oatmeal are all excellent options. (Tip: if you’re sensitive to lactose, use non-dairy milk for your oatmeal to avoid bedtime digestive issues.)

No caffeine after noon. And keep in mind that coffee stays in your system 6-8 hours after consumption. Note that green tea, black tea, and kombucha are caffeinated. If you want a beverage at night, opt for chamomile or rooibos tea

Avoid blue light such as computer or tablet screens, TVs, and yes, your phone. An e-reader with a “blue shade” mode is fine if you want to read before bed.

Make your room as dark as possible. In our modern world, ambient light from porch lights, streetlamps, and passing cars can disrupt your brain’s sleep mode. Invest in some light-blocking curtains and a cute eye mask.

Try taking magnesium glycinate or melatonin to relax your body and get into sleep mode.

Sleep is one of the top investments you can make in your health — and plus, you get to relax and cozy up! Embrace sleep as a critical part of your health plan. It’s essential to detox, immunity, weight loss, fitness, and your overall physical and psychological wellness.

This article is based on an interview with Kate Turner, a private nutrition consultant, educator, and public speaker.

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