Research is increasingly finding that sleep is as important as nutrition and exercise to our daily health. In fact, it could be the most important of all. Humans, like all animals, must sleep. Sleep is a time when our brain consolidates memories, processes psychological stressors, rejuvenates cells, repairs tissues and the entire body rests to prepare for the activity of the next day.
Depending on age, adults require six to eight hours of sleep each night. Getting less than that can cause sleep deprivation that negatively affects our ability to function the next day. Prolonged sleep deprivation leads to a breakdown in bodily and cognitive functions. As we age, the effects of chronic sleep deprivation compound and cause a host of issues.
Many studies have linked insufficient sleep with weight gain. Even babies that sleep poorly are more likely to develop obesity in later childhood.
The body requires deep sleep to control blood sugars. Sleeping fewer than five hours nightly is associated with Type 2 diabetes, which can be reversed simply by increasing nightly sleep.
High Blood Pressure and Heart Disease
There is growing evidence of a causal connection between insufficient sleep and a host of heart issues, including stroke and coronary artery disease.
Our immune systems need to recharge nightly for the daily fight against invaders, so it is no surprise that a lack of sleep reduces the body’s ability to fend off infections. In one recent study, individuals who regularly received long, restful sleep were three times less likely to come down with the common cold than those who had just a little less sleep.
Chronic sleep deprivation results in an overall reduction in physical health.
Because sleep helps us feel better physically and process the stresses of ordinary life, going without restorative slumber can have serious negative effects over the long run. People with insomnia are five times more likely to suffer depression, which can interfere with sleep in a vicious cycle. Depression is often treated by addressing sleep issues.
Many famous accidents — Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown, Exxon Valdez oil spill, numerous medical mistakes — are at least partly attributed to sleep deprivation in the individuals responsible. Because sleep helps our brains categorize and store information, learning and remembering depend on restful sleep.
A Litany of Other Health Issues
Lacking sleep, our bodies release the stress hormone cortisol, which ages our skin. You’re most familiar with that in the form of bags under the eyes. Sleep deprivation also interferes with our sex drive, which is already declining as we age.
Length of Life
Multiple studies show that people who sleep an average of five hours or fewer die 10-12 years earlier than those who get the recommended minimum of six hours.
Most of these issues add up over our time, causing the chronically sleep-impaired among us to look and feel old earlier in life. Much of the physical and mental breakdown we experience as seniors comes from a lifetime of trading sleep for an extra hour of activity.
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