Just how important is sleep?

We’ve been conditioned to think of health and wellness as what we eat and how we move. In actual fact, perhaps the biggest factor in how we feel is something very, very basic. It’s our sleep. It’s often the biggest stumbling block we see with our clients because sleep isn’t a fun thing to manipulate. We get it. After a long day of work and kids, all you want to do is plonk on the couch and scroll the internet or watch your favourite show. It’s something that takes consistent work to build good habits and it’s at odds with how many of us live our lives.

So just how important is sleep?

Chronic undersleeping has been linked to numerous health conditions. In fact, one study found that even sleeping fewer than 6 hours per night is associated with early death. It’s so important that leading voices in the wellness field such as Dr Sarah Ballantyne, Dallas Hartwig and Robb Wolf now place sleep and stress management at the top of their wellness hierarchy.

Dallas Hartwig is the co-founder of the Whole 30 programme and author of the book “It Starts With Food.” Recently in a post on sleep, he re-evaluated scientific evidence and came to the conclusion “It no longer starts with food.”

He acknowledges that it doesn’t mean nutrition isn’t important, rather; “I’m just becoming increasingly convinced that the bidirectional relationship between food and sleep (or movement and sleep; connection and sleep) is skewed heavily in favor of sleep as the more important driver.

“That’s because our sleep patterns anchor our circadian rhythms. And this essential relationship with the natural, rhythmical order of the Earth’s light/dark cycle affects everything about our health.”

From a practical perspective, we don’t need science to tell us this. When we are tired we are more likely to make poor food choices. We’re also less inclined to exercise even though gentle movement may energize us. We are also far more likely to feel stressed.

As we’ve said previously, health isn’t one thing. It isn’t even several things done well for a short period of time. Health is what you do consistently over the long-term.  While sleep is the least obvious aspect of health to change, it’s also one of the most profound. It may even play a huge role in postpartum depression for new parents.  Sleep deprivation is hard and has huge implications for all aspects of your health.

Biologically quality sleep is needed for several key functions. It allows our bodies to recover and regenerate, produces human growth hormone (HGH) and research has shown that without this recovery and regeneration, a sleep deficit can contribute to major illnesses like heart diseasediabetes, and obesity.

If you have PCOS or are type 2 diabetic the short-term effects of sleep loss are shocking as well. This study conducted at the Cedars- Sinai Medical Centre found a single night of sleep deprivation can cause as much insulin resistance as six months on a high-fat, high sugar diet.

Insulin resistance is a condition in which the body does not use insulin efficiently to move glucose from the blood into the cells. It is a characteristic feature of both Type 2 diabetes and prediabetes.

Good sleep, however, has numerous benefits; It improves mental cognition, can help with depression and anxiety, is vital for growth in infants and children as well as recovery in performance athletes.

Understanding the natural scientific rhythm of sleep is important. How long you are asleep for is perhaps less important than the quality of that sleep is.  Neurochemical and hormonal shifts occur while you are sleeping.

Sleep and the circadian rhythm

We've all heard of our circadian rhythm in 5th form science. It applies to flora and fauna outside in a daily cycle, but it also applies to humans. We all have internal body clocks. They are all naturally regulated by light, dark and by changes in body functions such as hormones, basal body temperature and even inflammation in your body over a 24-hour cycle. 

Critically, this means we need a clear demarcation between hormones we have surging in the morning, and hormones we have surging in our bodies at night  If we don’t sleep in a similar pattern to our natural circadian rhythm we will struggle. It’s a bit of a chicken and an egg situation because sleep helps regulate your hormones, but you need the right hormones to sleep. 

Melatonin is especially important when it comes to bedtime. This hormone changes our core body temperature and lets us know when we’re tired. Melatonin is produced incrementally as the day goes on, peaking when it is dark. This is why we naturally want to sleep longer in winter - that and the fact our beds are warm! 

So. How much sleep do we need?

Generally speaking, in a healthy adult with no extra demand for cellular repair, we recommend 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night. However, the amount of optimum sleep also varies between individuals. As the study linking fewer than 6 hours a sleep with early death suggests, getting more than 7 hours is critical. Experiment with 7-9 hours of sleep per night to see where you feel best.  

Babies and children obviously need more sleep to help their bodies grow and develop those synaptic connections. Elite athletes also need extra snooze time to allow their bodies to fully recover and produce HGH.

The key takeaway here is;  No-one can survive on minimal sleep, long-term. Research is ever evolving in this field and more and more data about the importance of sleep is emerging all the time. At Recal we know that quality sleep is a critical platform for building other healthy habits.

Look out for our next article about how to improve the quality of your sleep.

If you have any questions, please reach out to us.