Health Benefits of Sleep – How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep

We all know how much better we feel after a good night’s sleep, and the health benefits of getting enough of it. Sleep is a basic need fine-tuned over millions of years of evolution to support the body’s everyday functions, including fighting disease and strengthening the systems that keep us looking and feeling good. But despite its importance, millions of people don’t get enough sleep.

Fortunately, most of the damage that results from poor sleep can be corrected by taking simple steps to make sure you’re sleeping properly. You may already be aware that you should try to go to bed and wake up at roughly the same time each day. It’s also important to minimize light and noise in your bedroom and make it a comfortable place to relax before you drift off.

You probably also know that the quality of your sleep depends on the amount of time spent in each of the four stages of the sleep cycle. The first three, non-REM, REM and slow eye movements (stage 2), occur in sequence, with most of the night’s sleep devoted to stage 2. In the deeper stages, your heart rate and breathing slow down, brain waves spike briefly, then decrease, and muscle movement stops. During this period, the body releases growth hormone to help build and repair tissues.

Finally, in the REM phase, your eyes move rapidly behind closed lids, brain activity is similar to that of being awake, and your heart rate increases slightly as you dream. During this phase, your immune system is activated and memory is strengthened.

The reason that all this happens is that our bodies and minds evolved to live in a 24-hour cycle of day and night, and the natural patterns of sleep, circadian rhythms, work together with the drive for rest—that feeling that grows stronger the longer you’ve been awake—to keep us sleeping at the right times and ensure we’re alert when it’s time to wake up. This cycle helped early humans conserve energy, avoid predators and meet their need for rest.

Besides helping us cope with the stress of modern life, sleep also protects against chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes, and boosts immunity by releasing cytokines to fight inflammation. It’s also essential for maintaining a healthy weight, and for promoting good mental and emotional well-being.

But in many parts of the world, sleep is being sacrificed to other priorities, such as economic advancement and technological innovation. Unfortunately, a growing body of evidence suggests that neglecting our slumber may lead to a host of problems ranging from obesity and low self-esteem to cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal disorders and cognitive dysfunction. So we need to start prioritizing sleep again, both for our own health and for the sake of our societies.