Written by Dan Craig
Dan is a Physiologist with an MSc Exercise and Sports Sciences and is a Certified Nutrition Coach
Few of us are at our best when we’ve had a bad night’s sleep. We might be irritable, sluggish or simply unable to focus on anything other than getting back to our beds. If it happens occasionally, there’s no reason to worry. An early night, or a lie in when work and other commitments allow, can restore us to our usual selves, with no real harm done. However, if we’re not getting enough good quality sleep on a regular basis, the long-term effects could be damaging to our health and mental wellbeing.
Daniel Craig, Senior Physiologist at AXA PPP healthcare explains why we need sleep, what can happen long term when we don’t get enough and what simple steps we can take in order to get a better night’s sleep.
How did you sleep last night?
Did you sleep well, with no interruptions? Do you feel refreshed? Or was your sleep disrupted? It may be that you woke up today feeling more tired than when you actually went to bed, a common problem for many of us. But is it something we just accept as part and parcel of our busy lives, or should we start paying more attention to how much, and how well we sleep?
Sleep is actually far more important than many of us give it credit for. We now know that when we experience a state of sleep deprivation a number of things can happen to our health and wellbeing, particularly in the long term. Studies have shown that consistently getting insufficient sleep - or experiencing poor sleep - over prolonged periods of time is linked with 7 out of the 15 leading causes of death, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and hypertension.1
Other studies on the lack of sleep in men, show that after just one week of sleeping less than 5 hours a night there’s a 15% reduction in testosterone2 - equivalent to an ageing-effect of 10 years!
In short, if we want to stay well, we need to recognise the importance of sleep as a key component of a healthy lifestyle, in the same way we might our diet, fitness and our mental wellbeing.
Why do we need to sleep?
There are various views on why we need sleep and what its function is. You might say it’s to:
- recharge our batteries
- to repair or replenish our bodies
- to re-energise ourselves.
All of these are true, but our more fundamental need for sleep is still heavily debated.
From an evolutionary perspective, there seem to be universal core functions, that we can’t carry out when we’re awake, despite the fact it leaves us in an unconscious, and therefore vulnerable state.
Yet there are a number of animal species that appear to require little or no sleep at all and can still function perfectly well – so what makes us different?
For now, questions around our inherent need for sleep remain unanswered, but we are aware of some of the benefits that sleep provides.
How does sleep benefit us?
It's protective – we need sleep for our physical and mental health and for our quality of life and safety. Sleep can help us rewire various neural connections in our brain, and helps us to process the information in our short-term memory that’s important to us and embed it into our long-term memory.
It supports executive functions – sleep allows us to carry out executive functions, such as high level decision making, flexible thinking and effective communication. In a sleep-deprived state, many of these functions could be compromised.
It moderates behaviours – sleep helps us maintain positive behaviours, for example avoiding unethical conduct or irritability that might impact our relationships at home, and perhaps more pertinently, at work!