Eight Ways Sleep Can Improve Your Health

Sleep may not always be easy to come by, but the recommended six to eight hours can do wonders for your health.

Photo Courtesy of Pavel Ševela / Wikimedia Commons

Let’s be honest, rolling your clock forward every year isn’t easy. The ritual that ushers in Daylight Saving Time (2 a.m. Sunday) and the promise of spring can really mess with our sleep cycle. Fortunately, for most of us, a 23-hour Sunday means little more than a mildly sleepy Monday.

Too many of us, though, are chronically sleep-deprived. A recent documentary co-produced by the National Geographic Channel revealed that 40 percent of Americans get less than the recommended six to eight hours per night. Many get less than five. Stress, electronic devices and work are often blamed for the lack of quality slumber. The consequences are dire: regular poor sleep puts you at risk for serious medical conditions—even premature death.

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“Sleep is a necessity,” says Bayhealth pulmonologist and sleep-medicine specialist Dr. Brian Walsh. “It’s not just a luxury, it’s a requirement.” Daylight Saving Time is a great time to reassess your sleep habits and reconsider the importance of a good night’s snooze. Here’s how sleep can improve your health:

1. Sleep boosts immunity
Catching more colds than usual? Blame your bedtime. Research shows that sleep deprivation decreases the production of cytokines, proteins that stimulate the movement of cells toward sites of infection, inflammation and trauma. Infection-fighting antibodies and cells are also reduced when we don’t get enough sleep.

2. Sleep can whittle your waistline
Studies show that sleep-deprived people have decreased levels of leptin, the chemical that makes you feel full and increased levels of ghrelin, the hunger-stimulating hormone.

3. Sleep can improve mood
A chronic sleep deficit can cause our emotions to go haywire. A 2007 study showed that lack of sleep elevates activity in the emotional centers of the brain most closely associated with psychiatric disorders like depression and anxiety.

4. Sleep prevents diabetes
Research suggests that sleeplessness causes insulin-producing cells to stop working properly, elevating glucose levels and leaving you wide open to type 2 diabetes.

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5. Sleep can protect your brain and improve its function
Swedish researchers found that even one night without sleep can lead to an increase of molecules that are biomarkers for brain damage. A University of California, Berkeley study found that lack of sleep causes memories to get stuck in the hippocampus, which is then “overwritten” with new memories.

6. Sleep promotes heart health
Getting less than six hours of sleep each night causes the body to produce chemicals and hormones that can lead to heart disease, according to a study published in the European Heart Journal.

7. Sleep keeps you looking good
Beauty sleep is no myth. A study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology found that lack of sleep accelerates skin aging and decreases its ability to repair itself.

8. Sleep can help you live longer
A study in the journal Sleep found that men who got less than six hours of sleep a night were more likely to die over a 14-year period. Moreover, too many nights of too little sleep can lead to more than 700 genetic changes that could significantly impact your health.

The only thing that can cure sleep deprivation is: sleep. If you’ve built up a considerable sleep deficit, getting back on track won’t happen overnight—no pun intended.

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Not sure about how much sleep you actually need? Walsh recommends taking the “three-day test.” Starting on a weekend—or some other time when you don’t have to get up—go to bed when you’re tired and allow yourself to wake up naturally: no alarm clocks, please. “In about three days, you should know your numbers,” he says.

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