The importance of sleep

Sleep is vital to good health, in fact, a lack of sleep can be detrimental to our well being.  We have all had nights where sleep is not forthcoming, but how much do we really need, and what are the ramifications to our health if we don't get the required amount?

How much sleep do we need? 
Our sleep requirements change throughout our lifespan; we require more sleep during growth phases, and less as we age.

Image courtesy of National Sleep Foundation

Image courtesy of National Sleep Foundation

The power of sleep

Being awake takes its toll, in order for the body to recover, we require a certain amount of sleep each night.  Sleep enables our body to restore and recover, the restoration that takes place while we sleep is truly amazing.

Sleep and Alzheimers
A build-up of a toxic protein called Beta Amyloid within the brain has been shown to increase the risk of developing Alzheimers.  This protein builds up during the day, and then gets washed away during deep sleep.  If you do not get adequate sleep, this protein builds up in the brain, increasing your risk of Alzheimers.

Increased risk of cancer
Studies have shown that sleeping less than five hours a night increases your risk of some cancers.  According to sleep researcher and neuroscientist Matthew Walker, short bursts of sleep (4-5hours or less) reduce your immune system's cancer-fighting cells by up to 70%!  Cancers that fall within this category include bowel, prostate and breast cancer.
The link between cancer and lack of sleep is so strong that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared shift-work a probable carcinogenic.  So what if you are a shift worker? The research is not conclusive, and it does not mean you are destined for cancer; the risk is certainly higher but there are steps you can take to trick the body:

  1. Wearing sunglasses home from your shift - this can help trick your body into thinking it's still night time.
  2. Make sure your sleep area is dark and where possible quiet. Install block-out blinds or curtains and purchase some ear plugs.  A darkened room will be more likely allow recovery sleep.
  3. Turn off all mobile devices to ensure you do not get disrupted during your sleep.
  4. Keep to the same routine during your shift work, go to bed at the same time and wake at the same time. Continuity will allow more chance of recovery sleep.

Sleep and your Risk of Heart Attack & Stroke
Studies show if you are only getting six hours or less sleep a night, your risk of having a heart attack or stroke increases by 200% over your lifetime.  Adequate sleep lowers both your blood pressure and heart rate, allowing your heart to essentially reboot.

Sleep and Pain
Insomnia, in particular, has been shown to increase your sensitivity to pain by producing hyperalgesic changes.  Chronic pain sufferers are more likely to experience sleep disturbance.

Getting enough Sleep

The key to getting adequate sleep is routine.  It's important to stick to the same routine every night, there will occasionally be disruptions but the closer you can keep to a routine the better.  

  • Try to go to bed at the same time each night  
  • Take time to wind down such as reading a book (preferably not on a device), having a cup on chamomile tea, avoiding working on the computer an hour or more before bedtime.
  • Make you bedroom dark and quiet.  Install block out blinds, turn off any artificial lighting (electric clocks, mobile phones, computers).

In summary, our bodies begin to deteriorate mentally and physiologically after being awake for around 16 hours. Sleeping less than six hours a night is likely to increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, Alzheimers, and stroke.  It will also negatively affect your immune system, memory and pain sensations.  You are more likely to experience mood disturbances, including depression.  Adequate sleep and good health are joined at the hip; you're unlikely to have one without the other.  

Sources: The effects of sleep deprivation on your brain and body.  Matthew Walker.