How Sleep Affects Your Health

Getting enough sleep can boost the immune system, lower your blood pressure and cholesterol and help you lose weight. It can also improve your mental and emotional health, helping you deal with stress, boost creativity, focus on tasks and learn. But how sleep works isn’t fully understood, making it difficult to prevent or treat problems that result from poor quality or lack of sleep.

Researchers are learning that there are many different types of sleep and that the amount you need depends on your age, genes and how much activity you’re involved in during the day. In addition, sleep appears to affect many of the body’s major systems, from the heart and circulatory to the brain and muscles. It’s even been linked to the body’s metabolic processes and the regulation of hormones.

Most people know that a good night’s sleep can make them feel more alert and ready to face the day. But few are aware that getting the right amount of sleep can also protect them from disease and improve their overall health and appearance. The relationship between sleeping well and health is complex, but it’s increasingly clear that adequate sleep helps to reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases, obesity and some cancers as well as improving mental wellbeing.

The science of sleep is still in its early stages, but scientists are starting to understand why it’s important. They’re finding that sleep plays an important role in supporting healthy brain function and physical health, as well as promoting growth and development in children and teens. But getting inadequate sleep can raise your risk of some chronic (long-term) health problems, and may interfere with how well you think, react, work, learn and get along with others.

Scientists used to think that sleep was a passive state, but this is now known to be untrue. For example, during sleep the brain becomes temporarily unresponsive to sensory inputs. This is thought to be a result of the thalamic gating mechanism, a process that blocks sensory signals from reaching the neocortex, and instead allows only preprocessed information to reach it.

What’s more, the timing of when you get up and go to bed has a huge impact on your mood and performance during the day. For this reason, doctors and experts recommend aiming for about seven hours of sleep each night. “If you don’t get adequate amounts of sleep, you can become a lot more sluggish during the day,” says Roy Kohler, MD, a sleep specialist at SCL Health in Billings, Montana. “That makes it harder to concentrate, and you might find yourself making more mistakes. It’s also associated with a higher risk of motor vehicle crashes and high blood pressure.”

The evidence for the benefits of sleep is growing, but it’s not yet considered as important as other traditional lifestyle factors like exercise, a balanced diet, not smoking and maintaining a healthy weight. Nevertheless, researchers are working to highlight the importance of sleep and are developing ways to encourage people to get adequate amounts.