Sleep is essential for a person’s health and wellbeing, yet millions of people do not get enough sleep. At least 40 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders and 60% of adults report having sleep problems. Most individuals with sleep problems go undiagnosed and untreated, resulting in over 40% of adults reporting drowsiness during the day that is severe enough to interfere with their daily activities a few days each month.
Sleep helps your brain prepare for the next day. As you sleep, your brain forms new pathways to help you remember information and learn new things. Studies show that a good night’s sleep improves learning by enhancing your problem-solving skills. Sleep also helps you pay attention, make decisions, and be creative. If you’re sleep deficient, you may have trouble with decision-making, problem-solving, controlling your emotions, and coping with change. Over time, sleep deficiency can alter how the brain reacts in everyday situations and has been linked to depression, suicide, and risk-taking behavior.
Sleep also plays an important role in your physical health. Sleep is involved in the following functions:
- Sleep is involved in the healing and repair of heart and blood vessels. Chronic sleep deficiency is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, and stroke.
- Sleep helps maintain a healthy balance of hormones that regulate hunger. A lack of quality sleep causes an increased level of ghrelin, which makes you feel hungrier than usual. Sleep deficiency has also been linked with an increased risk of obesity across age groups.
- Sleep supports healthy growth and development. During deep sleep, the body releases a natural growth hormone in children and teenagers, which boosts muscle mass and repairs tissues.
- Sleep promotes immunity. An adequate amount of quality sleep keeps your immune system strong and helps you fight common infections. Oftentimes, you may notice an increased likelihood of sickness when you have not gotten enough rest.
A short-lived bout of insomnia is generally nothing to worry about. The bigger concern is chronic sleep loss, which can contribute to health problems such as weight gain, high blood pressure, and a decrease in the immune system’s effectiveness. While our brains can recover quite readily from short-term sleep loss, chronic sleep disruption stresses the brain; this results in the degeneration of neurons involved in proper cortical function and a buildup of proteins associated with aging and neural degeneration.
After several nights of losing sleep—even a loss of just 1–2 hours per night—your ability to function suffers. Lack of sleep may lead to microsleep, which refers to the brief moments of sleep that occur when you’re normally awake. You can’t control microsleep, and you might not be aware of it. Have you ever driven somewhere and then not remembered part of the trip? If so, you may have experienced microsleep. You may miss important information while speaking with someone, or when listening to a lecture. Microsleep can impact how you learn and function on a daily basis.
Many people do not realize they are sleep deficient and may not be aware of the risks it carries; in fact, some people think they can function well with limited or poor-quality sleep. Sleep deficiency can affect people in all lines of work, including health care workers, students, lawyers, and drivers, and negatively impacts our day-to-day work. If you are experiencing sleep deficiency, speak to your primary physician to learn more about sleep disorders and what you can do to improve your sleep quality.
“Importance of Sleep: Six reasons not to scrimp on sleep,” Harvard Health Publications, January 2006
Konnikova, M., “Goodnight. Sleep Clean,” The New York Times, January 11, 2014
“The Importance of Sleep,” American Psychological Association, 2017
“Why is Sleep Important? National Institutes of Health, February 4, 2012