Originally published on the Life Ready blog

Sleep plays a vital role in maintaining and improving your overall health and wellbeing.  So much so that a lack of sleep has been proposed as an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

Sleep supports healthy brain function, learning, memory, and aids children’s growth and development. Melatonin (a hormone involved in regulating sleep/wake cycles) is produced while we sleep and this inhibits tumour growth, prevents viral infection and stimulates the immune system.

In addition, growth hormone production peaks during sleep, speeding up the absorption of nutrients and amino acids into yours cells; this in turn aides with the healing of tissues throughout the body.

In a study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, it was found that quality sleep (measured as >7hrs) increased the benefits of combined lifestyle habits (healthy diet, moderate alcohol intake, non-smoking, and regular exercise) by lowering the risk of a fatal cardiovascular event from 67% to 83%.

While short-lived bouts of insomnia are usually nothing to be concerned about, it’s the chronic lack of sleep that contributes to negative health effects such as:

  • Irritability, impatience
  • Depression, risk taking behaviours, suicide
  • Weight gain: increases the hormone ghrelin and decreases leptin (which make you feel hungry and full respectively) thereby making you feel hungrier compared to when you’re well rested
  • Decreased immune power
  • High blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease , stroke
  • Lapses in attention, difficulty concentrating, poor performance at school or work

Stress is the number one cause of short-term sleep difficulties, but other influences may include: medications (decongestants, steroids, blood pressure tablets), the comfort and size of your bed and pillow, and your partners sleeping habits.

 The power nap

A 20-30minute power nap is an excellent way to provide a boost in alertness and performance but it generally doesn’t provide the benefits of a night-time sleep, so these may be issues you want to bring up with your doctor, mental health professional, or even your partner (time to find that solution to snoring!).

When it comes to sleep, quantity definitely does not equal quality. Someone getting hours and hours of sleep may not receive the same benefits if the sleep isn’t deep enough or if some of that sleep is disturbed. It’s recommended that adults get 7-8 hours per night, but even those getting less than 7 hours who wake feeling rested still demonstrate the benefits of reduced cardiovascular events.

So, sleep needs vary from person to person, and one way to gauge the quality is by how refreshed you feel when you wake up, or if you tend to sleep more on your days off then that may be a sign that you aren’t getting enough sleep.

Here are some strategies to improve your sleep

  • Allow enough time to get the hours your body needs
  • Keep a regular sleep/wake routine – and try to keep to it on weekends
  • Avoid caffeine four to six hours before bed
  • Avoid alcohol and heavy meals before sleep so your digestive process is at rest by the time you’re ready to fall asleep
  • Maintain regular exercise
  • Minimize noise, light (including computers, phones and TV’s) and excessive hot/cold temperatures where you sleep
  • Have a hot bath or use relaxation techniques like mediation and soft music before bed

Small changes can make a huge impact on the amount of quality sleep you’re getting and therefore a huge impact on your overall health. So, do your body and mind a favour and allow yourself to get the regular rest you need.

References and Links:

http://www.apa.org/topics/sleep/why.aspx

http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/features/important-sleep-habits

http://www.health.harvard.edu/press_releases/importance_of_sleep_and_health

http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/sdd/why.html

http://www.news-medical.net/news/20130704/Study-reveals-health-benefits-of-a-good-nights-sleep.aspx

http://edition.cnn.com/HEALTH/alternative/9908/25/heal.sleep/

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