Sleep is the most overlooked life necessity of them all. It is not difficult to see the benefits of a full night’s worth of sleep. You wake more naturally and with healthy levels of energy. Despite this, sleep is usually one of the last aspects of self-care that most will try to improve. This is odd, as most people acknowledge how important sleep is, and will go to great lengths to improve their quality of life in other areas. They will create diets, establish challenging exercise routines, and pick up beneficial skills to improve themselves.

This is because the benefits of eating well and exercising are well documented, and need no explanation for most. The negatives of eating poorly and avoiding exercise are equally well documented. Bridging the knowledge gap on how sleep improves quality of life could certainly motivate others to pursue the benefits of healthy sleep habits and improve the lives of an incredible number of people.

Studying the functions of sleep itself has been a longstanding issue in the scientific research community. The universal behavior has been examined from what seems like every possible angle. While no exact answer to this question yet exists, certain interactions in the brain have led scientists to several compelling explanations. There are a couple of theories in particular that have a more factual basis than others.

How Sleep Repairs The Body

The first theory attributes vital rejuvenating functions directly to the act of sleeping. The idea is that we are regaining something that is lost while conscious and that sleep’s vital role is to restore. This is somewhat rooted in empirical evidence. Several vital functions of the body do occur mostly during sleep such as muscle tissue growth, the release of growth hormones, and the disposal of a particular neurotransmitter called adenosine. Adenosine builds via cell activity in the brain and may be what makes one so tired after an exhausting day. Caffeine actually helps fend off adenosine, which is part of why scientists theorize sleep is restorative.

Stanford researchers also found a correlation between glycogen loss and an increase in adenosine production among other indicators that suggested glycogen production was one of the main functions behind sleep.  Glycogen acts as a type of backup energy for neurons and is the only molecule with the specific purpose of doing this.   Researchers question whether this means lack of glycogen has a direct relationship with the regulation of sleep, or that it is simply an additional indicator of the sleep trouble itself.

One study concluded that “glycogen levels during the sleep-wake cycle are driven by different physiological signals and therefore appear more as a marker-integrator of brain energy status than a direct regulator of sleep homeostasis”.  They further supported this in that the “blockade of glycogen mobilization does not induce more sleep episodes during the active period while locomotor activity is reduced.”

Sleep Develops the Brain

A more complete theory has surfaced in the scientific community recently. This idea is referred to as “brain plasticity” or “neural plasticity”.  Neural plasticity suggests that sleep assists in molecular level changes in the brain. These changes are considered vital not only in various vital mechanisms of the brain but also in that sleep deprivation will always eventually result in the death of the animal. The mechanisms for how this occurs are not entirely clear, but the evidence is convincing.

Sleep deprivation adversely affects the ability to learn new skills or remember important information. These activities are specifically linked to activity in the brain during sleep; various behavioral studies have found a strong correlation between sleep and skill acquisition. This is usually thought to be why infants and children require nearly twice the sleep duration an adult would require. This is simply a conjecture based on the observation that children require sleep and sleep is necessary for learning/memorizing new skills or information. However, a child’s brain is in a crucial stage of development and is always taking in new concepts. The correlation is easy to create, and the research suggests this link could be more than conjecture. This lessens the older we become, but it is likely that our formation of new skills is still dependent upon sleep.

Sleep More, Weigh Less

One of the other myriad ways sleep affects us is in our body’s metabolism.  Researchers have found a correlation between high cortisol levels in the body and a consistent lack of sleep.  Cortisol is a stress hormone but is also in part responsible for regulating conservation of energy.  This suggests that sleeping badly will inevitably lead to weight gain due to the body’s inability to properly store and conserve your energy.  In one study participants altered their sleeping schedule for the worse while maintaining the same daily caloric intake as they usually would.

The results are shocking; over a two week period researchers saw participant’s weight loss from burning fat storage in the body cut in half.  Another important implication of this is that high cortisol levels will lead to physical tension and excess stress.  Cortisol interferes with various sleep states as well, so reduced stress will inevitably lead to improvements in your sleep.  From this research, it is clear that proper sleep is necessary for functions of the brain that affect the body as well.  Your body’s metabolism may not be getting the vital sleep it requires every night.  This could lead to further issues with both weight gain, stress, and even more sleep disruption.

Lack of Sleep Contributes to Mental Health Issues

If none of that is enticing you to rush to bed and get a good night’s sleep, then surely this will.  People often cite wanting to maximize their available time to live as a reason as to why they sleep less.  On the surface level this seems logical, more time awake equals more life, but it is erroneous on several levels.  The most obvious reason is that proper sleep can and will extend your life to allow you more of the most precious resource of all. Research suggests that a lack of sleep leads to an increased risk for heart disease, stroke, and cancer.  This is extremely important to note as these illnesses are what often cause people to die prematurely.  An equally important reason is that lack of sleep can lead to negative mental health consequences and the development of depression, anxiety, or a behavioral disorder.

Harvard Medical School, after examining several studies on the subject, noted that as many as 90% of observed participants who had depression also suffer from a sleep issue.  What’s more worrying is they have observed that the sleep problems developed before the depressive disorder for those participating in the study.  A similar relationship exists for anxiety disorders and sleep as well, but is not quite as strong in that around 50% of anxiety sufferers also suffer from sleep issues.

Sleep Improves Productivity

We have now looked at a few different ways that lack of sleep negatively affects the mind and body.  How does all this influence your daily life?  Do you find yourself struggling to stay focused or that your memory fails you more than it should?  The truth is that because of all these negative consequences for not sleeping well, you or someone you know is likely suffering in their work life and personal life.  How many times have we heard the old saying “don’t talk to me until I’ve had my coffee”?  This is a sign of a chronic, societal sleep issue that is causing billions to lose out on valuable time and productivity.  Evaluate the way you prioritize your sleep and the different ways you cope with being tired.

Sleep is Vital to Your Health

Perhaps now it is easier to see just how important a good night’s sleep is to your well being.  The implications for not getting those full several hours are very bleak. Your ability to retain new information and skills will be diminished, and several vital functions of the body will be neglected. Your brain is carrying out extremely important tasks while you sleep regardless of what the exact nature of that is.  If the brain is truly changing shape and replenishing vital energy molecules as we sleep, then it is easy to see why a lack of sleep causes such a high amount of people worldwide to find themselves in unsafe working conditions and life-threatening accidents.  The importance of sleep cannot possibly be overstated.  A well-rested world is a better world.