Why is Sleep Important?

March 2021

Whether you’re a night owl or a morning lark, you need a good night’s sleep to feel your best. It’s a vital function, like eating, drinking and breathing. You can’t survive without sleep. Like following a healthy diet or engaging in physical activity, getting enough sleep is crucial to your physical and mental health. Here’s why.

Health benefits of sleep

Sleep benefits our bodies and minds in several ways:

Sleep protects your heart. Sleep contributes to the healing and repair of your heart and blood vessels.

Sleep helps you maintain a healthy weight. When you don’t get enough sleep, your level of ghrelin, the hormone that makes you feel hungry, increases, and your level of leptin, the hormone that makes you feel full, decreases. When these two hormones are out of balance, you feel hungrier, which can contribute to overeating and weight gain.

Sleep promotes growth and development. During deep sleep, the body releases the hormone that boosts muscle mass and helps repair cells and tissues in people of all ages. Because they are actively growing, children and teens find sleep especially critical.

Sleep contributes to reproductive health. Sleep plays a role in puberty and fertility.

Sleep controls blood glucose levels. The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) explains that during deep sleep, nervous system activity goes down, and the brain uses less glucose. At the same time, there’s an increase in growth hormone and a decrease in cortisol, a hormone that increases when someone is under stress. The NSF reports that sleep deprivation has been shown to decrease both the body’s ability to break down glucose and its sensitivity to insulin, which can lead to higher blood sugar during the day.

Sleep strengthens our immune system. Chronic sleep deprivation can change your body’s immune system response. When you don’t get enough sleep, you have a harder time fighting infection. Sleep helps keep your immune system strong to fight infections, such as the flu.

Sleep primes your brain for learning. When you sleep, your brain develops new pathways to help you learn and remember information.

Sleep helps you focus. When you’re well rested, you’re able to focus better. Sleep also helps with controlling emotions, mood and behavior and contributes to good decision-making skills.

Sleep basics

There are two different types of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep. Most dreaming occurs during REM sleep, which first occurs 90 minutes after we fall asleep. Non-REM sleep, broken down into three stages, is also known as deep sleep or slow wave sleep. It’s when many bodily functions such as heartbeat, breathing, eye movements and brain wave activity slow down.

When you sleep, your body cycles through each type and stage several times. To feel your best, you need enough total sleep and enough of each type of sleep. That means you need to make sure that your sleep isn’t disrupted. Common causes of sleep disruption include insomnia and sleep apnea, a serious sleep disorder.

Many people aren’t getting enough quality sleep. One-third of U.S. adults report not getting the recommended seven hours of nightly sleep, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dangers of sleep deprivation

Not getting enough sleep can contribute to a host of chronic health problems, finds the CDC. The negative health outcomes of insufficient or poor sleep include obesity, depression, stroke, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.

Lack of sleep can be dangerous in other ways too. You simply can’t think as clearly or react as quickly when you’re tired. Sleepiness can lead to drowsy driving, a major problem on U.S. roads. Every year, drowsy driving is responsible for anywhere from 100,000 to 328,000 vehicle crashes and from 1,500 to 6,400 crash fatalities. Sleepiness has also been linked to workplace accidents.

Sleep by the numbers

How much sleep you need depends on your age. To help you and your family get the sleep you need, follow these recommendations from the National Sleep Foundation:

  • Older adults (65+): 7 to 8 hours
  • Adults (18-64): 7 to 9 hours
  • Teenagers (14-17): 8 to 10 hours
  • School age children (6-13): 9 to 11 hours
  • Preschoolers (3-5): 10 to 13 hours
  • Toddlers (1-2 years): 11 to 14 hours
  • Infants (4-11 months): 12 to 15 hours
  • Newborns (0-3 months): 14 to 17 hours

To help you fall asleep quickly and get the sleep you need, you need to make sleep a priority. That means following healthy sleep habits, including maintaining a sleep schedule, limiting screen time before bed and keeping binge-watching in check.

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