By Grace Alano

Grace Alano

How a good night’s sleep is actually better for you than you might think. Here’s how we can sleep better.

It’s 7 am and your alarm goes off. Groggily, you roll over and fumble for the snooze button and hit it. ten minutes later, the same situation unfolds. And then maybe again ten minutes after that. Sound familiar? If it does, you’re not alone. And if you’re one of the many (very many) who feels guilty about sleeping in, this article is for you. Because it turns out we should be learning how to sleep instead of the other way around. So let’s explore the power of sleep – what it does for our bodies, our overall health, and how we can put some more shut-eye into our lives. 

The only problem with sleep: we’re not getting enough of it. 

We’re chronically sleep-deprived. Especially considering that we’re supposed to spend a third of our lives sleeping. Today, however, one out of every ten Americans says that they deprioritize sleep in lieu of work, exercise, hobbies, and social lives. The sleep situation (or rather the lack-of-sleep situation) has become so bad that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has classified it as an epidemic. 

“But it’s just sleep, right?” We can sense some skepticism coming through the screen, so let’s talk about sleep. The true power of sleep isn’t just beauty rest. Consider the following. People who only get 5-6 hours of sleep a night are 4.2 times more likely to become sick than those who sleep for 7 hours. Likewise, those same people who sleep less than 7 hours are 33% more likely to suffer from obesity

And this is just the start. Sleep-deprived individuals (those sleeping less than the recommended 7 hours a night) lose about 11 days of productivity a month. And sleep-deprived men have significantly smaller testicles than their well-rested counterparts. 

On the other side of the coin, people sleeping for 7 hours a night on average unlocked a wide range of health benefits. A study found that those who had REM “dream sleep” performed 32% better at puzzle-solving than those who had non-REM sleep. Plus, those with regular sleep schedules simply felt more rested during the day. It turns out that a good night’s sleep is actually pretty good for you. 

A behind-the-scenes look at sleep. 

But why is sleep so good for you? Let’s take a look under the hood at a better night’s rest and figure out what’s going on with the body that makes sleep so critical for our overall health. 

While the act of sleeping might seem like closing your eyes and dozing off, your body is actually hard at work building, repairing, recovering, strengthening and growing. Our bodies are incredibly complex organisms. From the food we eat to the physical exertion we place on them every day, they need time to rejuvenate. In fact, it’s during the night that our bodies make real progress. In other words, if you think sleeping in is killing your productivity, you couldn’t be more wrong. 

Think of your body like a factory with several different, interconnected processes running concurrently with multiple systems coordinating together. During the night the brain cleans house and flushes waste products from cells with cerebral spinal fluid. As breathing relaxes, blood pressure decreases, and hormones release to help repair tissue. 

Lack of sleep interrupts these vital processes and prevents the body from repairing itself like it needs to. Chronic insomnia and not getting enough sleep in general can lead to systematic failures down the road. For example, sleep plays such an important role keeping our brains clear of toxins, that when we interrupt sleep patterns or suffer from insomnia, those toxins can build up. A regular sleep schedule consisting of 7 hours protects us from future neurological disorders and also helps maintain a healthy brain today.

It’s also important to understand how sleep occurs. “Sleep” isn’t a catch-all turn and actually happens in a four-stage process:

Stage 1: drowsiness. 

We’re all familiar with this one. The eyes begin to droop and our brain waves slowly begin to slow. It’s also easy to wake up during this stage. 

Stage 2: light sleep. 

During this stage eye movement stops and brain waves slow even more — but now the brain experiences occasional rapid bursts of waves called sleep spindles. These are thought to keep the brain from awakening. 

Stages 3 and 4: deep sleep. 

During deep sleep, the body begins to repair muscles and tissues, stimulates growth and development, boosts immune function, and builds up energy for the next day. Deep sleep is the most restorative of the different stages. 

Stage 5: REM sleep. 

REM is fascinating, and not just because it harkens back to one of the greatest bands of the 80s and 90s. During REM, your brain consolidates the information you picked up that day, storing it in long-term memory. But there’s a catch: if REM doesn’t occur soon enough after archiving new information, that information will be lost. Sorry midnight exam crammers – you might help your grade a little, but you probably won’t be able to retain that information. 

An eye-opening look at sleep deprivation. 

Sleep deprivation or general trouble with sleeping doesn’t just harm your productivity at the office the next day – it can take a serious toll on your body and overall health. Think of depriving your body of sleep a lot like running your car without changing the oil. Things might sound and work fine for a while, but somewhere down the road, you’ll pay the price. And that price can take a variety of forms. Here are just a few: 

Memory loss. 

Trouble sleeping means trouble remembering. That’s due to the earlier point we mentioned. When the body sleeps, the brain is able to process, integrate, and turn short term memory into long term memory. 

Weaker immune system. 

Let’s say you only sleep 4 hours a night. In addition to being extremely cranky, your immune system will also suffer. In fact, the risk of cancer due to lack of sleep increases so much that many night shift jobs are labeled as carcinogens. Yikes!

Cardiovascular problems. 

Sleep deprivation can also lead to cardiovascular issues. That’s because it impacts inflammation, blood pressure, insulin resistance, cortisol levels, and can lead to heart disease. Additionally, the link between lack of sleep and obesity can’t be ignored. 

Increased chance of depression. 

In a 2007 study consisting of over 10,000 people, those who suffered from insomnia were five times more likely to suffer from depression than those who sleep regularly. Sleep loss can also aggravate the symptoms of depression. 

How to improve sleep. 

Heard enough and ready to hit the sack for a good night’s rest? We hope so! But before you do, there are several ways to improve both the quality and quantity of your sleep. 

1. Regular makes perfect. 

The body is like a well-oiled machine. As such, it runs on regularity. Instead of pushing the gas hard Monday through Friday and treating yourself to some nice shut eye on the weekend, create a sleep schedule that stays the same every single day. This helps the body establish a predictable routine. 

2. Keep it cool. 

Our bodies evolved to sleep in cooler temperatures. Optimal sleep conditions for humans are actually a slightly-frigid 65 degrees fahrenheit. Before going to bed, bump the thermostat down a few notches. And if your significant other prefers to sleep with the temperature higher, take a hot shower before bed. The sudden increase and drop in temperature produces the same effect. Plus, who doesn’t like a hot shower. 

3. Lay off the caffeine. 

Our culture has become slightly caffeine obsessed (understatement). Often convenient stores will have entire refrigerator sections dedicated to energy drinks. We’d never dream of telling you to give up your early morning coffee. Rather, give your body the time it needs to expel the caffeine from your system before going to bed. This usually means pumping the breaks on your caffeine intake around noon. 

4. Use your bed for sleep. 

This might sound obvious. But for many of us, the bed is also where we watch Netflix, surf the internet, read, or even eat. Your brain picks up on these cues and has a hard time switching tracks when it’s time to finally go to sleep for the day. Do all that stuff somewhere else and keep your bed dedicated to sleep. You’ll notice a difference. 

5. Don’t fight it. 

When we have trouble sleeping, many of us try to muscle through. We run through mantras, count sheep, and a lot of other things that ultimately end up frustrating us and making it even harder to fall asleep. Instead of fighting it, go into another room and do something else (except surf the internet) until you feel tired. That should do the trick. 

6. Mind the light. 

Ever wonder why you tend to feel tired and energized at the same times every day? That’s your circadian rhythms at work, and they play a huge role in sleep. Circadian rhythms can also be manipulated by outside factors – especially light. Exposing yourself to bright light or computer screens late at night can trick your body into thinking it’s two in the afternoon instead of 2 in the morning.

7. Wind down. 

In our increasingly busy, frenetic lives, it’s harder than ever to actually wind down. But winding down is critical when it comes to falling asleep. Instead of finishing up those last few emails or the last episode of your recent Netflix binge right before bed, spend the last hour of your evening winding down. Do some light stretching or reading (from a paperback). Engage in some good old fashioned conversation. You’ll find that you sleep better – and you might even become a little happier in the process. 

To sleep or not to sleep. 

Sleeping might be natural. But it’s not always easy. Life happens: we’ve got morning deadlines to hit, early-riser kids, goals and ambitions, and plans. With so much life going on, it becomes easy to sacrifice the sleep that our bodies so desperately need because so many of the health benefits that sleep provides aren’t visible. Decide to biohack your sleep this year. And in the process put some peace, productivity, and happiness back into your life. Your body will thank you. We promise.