This year, Sleep Awareness Week is on 3 – 9 August 2020.
Why is sleep so important?
We know that sleep is important because every animal ever studied sleeps. We have an overwhelming need to sleep if we are prevented from sleeping for several nights and because certain behaviours that are vital to our ability to function become impaired when we are sleep deprived. While scientists don’t yet know exactly why we sleep, we know it is vital for both our physical and mental restoration.
What are some of the negative things that can happen when you don’t get adequate sleep?
The first things that suffer are related to our brain function. We can’t hold our attention, our memory becomes poorer, our reactions are slowed and our mood fluctuates more than normal. If inadequate sleep continues to occur regularly we find that our physical and mental health may be at risk. The likelihood of depression increases, it seems likely our immune system suffers and we are at higher risk for metabolic impairments, such as those leading to diabetes. Our performance at work is impaired and there is a higher chance of driving accidents.
Why is Sleep Awareness Week so important?
Sleep Awareness Week draws attention to the importance of sleep as a vital component to a healthy lifestyle. While we have all heard a lot over the years about the importance of a good diet and regular exercise, the importance of sleep has received less attention. The Sleep Health Foundation argues that sleep is the third pillar of health, alongside diet and exercise. Interestingly, the recent Parliamentary Report on Sleep Health Awareness (entitled Bedtime Reading) agrees with this assessment and also argues sleep should become a national health priority.
Sleep is the critical third pillar in achieving maximum mental health and overall wellness.
While you are sleeping your body does a lot of important work.
- Your brain sorts and processes the days information creating long term memories as your brain consolidates all the information it’s picked up during the day and files it away for later use. Poor sleep leads to decreased decision-making ability, poorer reaction times and greater irritability.
- Hormones flood your body during sleep which helps your body to grow and repair itself. Without enough sleep, your hormones are out of whack and your body craves sugar, fat and high-GI foods leading to weight.
- Consistent good sleep may be a protective factor against heart disease, diabetes, stroke – as our sympathetic nervous system – which controls your fight or flight response – gets a chance to relax.
- Our cortisol levels (stress hormone) decreases during the first few hours of sleep before rising to peak soon after you wake up. This helps makes you feel perky when you wake up and switches on your appetite.
- Your immune system releases a type of small proteins called cytokines. If you’re sick or injured, these cytokines help your body fight inflammation, infection and trauma. Without enough sleep, your immune system might not be able to function at its best.
Sleep and mental health
Even partial sleep deprivation has a significant effect on mood. Not only does sleep affect mood, but mood and mental states can also affect sleep. Anxiety increases agitation and arousal, which make it hard to sleep. Stress also affects sleep by making the body aroused, awake, and alert
- Chronic sleep disruptions increase the likelihood of negative thinking, depression, anxiety and emotional vulnerability.
- Good quality sleep assists with the recovery from stressful experiences and is related to greater mental resilience.
- Poor sleepers are much more likely to develop significant mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety, than those who sleep well.
- The majority of people who have depression also experience sleep disturbances such as insomnia and sleep apnoea. It is therefore important that we look after our sleep to promote good mental health.
- Developing good sleep habits will improve sleep. A regular bedtime and waking time, avoiding stimulants (e.g., cigarettes and caffeine) before going to bed, exercising during the day, eating well, a comfortable bedroom that is quiet and dark, and avoiding electronic screens in the bedroom are all essential habits for good quality sleep.
If you suspect you have a sleep disorder see your GP.