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Why Is Good Sleep So Important?

22 March 2022

Good Sleep Is Essential

On the long list of habits to practice for optimum health and wellbeing, we know getting a consistent amount of good quality sleep is a high priority. We can also all identify the difference between a good night’s sleep - waking up feeling rested, recovered, and ready for the day ahead - and a poor one, where we find it hard to focus, have limited patience, and may feel unwell or, at least, fatigued.

Just a few days in a row of poor sleep can be of  great detriment to our mental and physical health. So, what is really happening in the body when we sleep? If we can understand its importance, we can start to understand why it’s such a priority in keeping us healthy and well, and maximising our productivity and success in the working day.

What Happens When We Sleep?

The typical adult needs between 8 and 10 hours sleep per night. During sleep, our body works through four different steps on a continuing cycle. Each cycle can take between 1 to 2 hours to complete, and runs as follows:

  • Step 1 - First Level Non-REM Sleep

This is a lighter level sleep and is the gentle sleep you’ll recognise when you’re first drifting off. During this time, your brain waves, heart rate, and eye movements will all start to slow down. Generally, this phase lasts no longer than 10 minutes.

  • Step 2 - Second Level Non-REM Sleep

During this period of lighter sleep, your body temperature will decrease, eye movements will stop, and muscles and heart rate will relax further. We spend most of our sleeping state in Second Level Non-REM Sleep.

  • Step 3 - Third Level Non-REM Sleep

In the third level of non-REM sleep, the body starts to enter deep sleep. Your body continues to slow down even further here, and eye and muscle movements cease. The deep sleep that this step introduces is essential to restorative sleep, and is the time when the body replenishes and repairs - ultimately leaving you feeling nourished, energised and refreshed the next day.

  • Step 4 - REM Sleep

The last step in the sleep cycle is REM sleep. This generally comes about 90 minutes after falling to sleep. Eye movements become rapid, alongside increased heart rate and breathing. This is where the dream state becomes active. The processing of information during dream states helps restore and strengthen the learning and memory centres of our brains.

What Does Sleep Do?

Brain & Body Power

No one knows exactly why we sleep, but we do know some of the processes it supports which maintain our health, wellbeing, and cognitive strength. Cellular restoration seems to be the main function of the human sleep period, as the body shuts down and decreases metabolic rate to focus on healing and restoring itself.

As such, good quality sleep will lead to healthy and reliable muscle repair, better ability to fight infection, and less aches and strains from the working day. In these cellular processes, we all see protein synthesis and hormone release optimised, which help carry out all bodily processes effectively.

Brain plasticity is also nurtured during sleep, as nerve cells are able to reorganise, repair, and restore during the sleep cycle. Research suggests that sleep also supports memory function by converting short-term memory to long-term memory, as well as erasing and “cleaning” unneeded information which keeps the nervous system regulated in a healthy way.

Through this mass cellular, cognitive and neural restoration, we see sleep nurturing the learning and memory areas within the brain, alongside focus, concentration, decision-making, creativity, and problem-solving skills. A healthy sleep pattern and the healthy brain and neural network it sustains are crucial for consistent focus, strong mental capability, and optimum mental and physical wellbeing.

Emotional Regulation

The maintenance and repair of brain tissue during sleep, alongside the optimisation of hormonal processes in the body, also helps regulate emotional wellbeing and stability. Sleep increases activity in particular areas of the brain, including the amygdala, striatum, hippocampus, insula, and medial prefrontal cortex. What this translates to, is high activity in areas of the brain that process and regulate emotion. Healthy maintenance of the amygdala, for instance, can stabilise your biological fear response and make you more resilient when dealing with stress or anxiety.

Poor quality sleep has been linked to increased symptoms of anxiety and depression. Good quality and consistent sleep help maintain a generally well-rounded sense of self and feeling of capability in navigating life’s pressures, allowing you to maintain positivity and manage stressors with minimal impact on your health.

Immunity & Heart Health

Good sleep health also helps maintain a strong and healthy immune system, whilst poor sleep can weaken the immune system and make the body more susceptible to illness. During sleep, the body produces cytokines, or proteins that fight inflammation and infection, alongside producing antibodies and immune cells. A consistent production of these elements helps maintain the immune system and ensure you stay healthy, energised, and focused.

This can also explain why we feel more tired when stressed or ill - our body is recognising the extra need to sleep to create more immune cells and proteins. So if you’re feeling overworked or unwell, don’t guilt yourself out of that nap!

Lack of quality sleep has also been linked to heart problems, including increased blood pressure, increased sympathetic nervous system activity, and a resistance to insulin. Directly and indirectly, these factors can all impact the regulation of stress within the body, as well as healthy heart function. Good quality sleep can help mitigate these deficiencies, regulate the heart for a healthy and energised body, and minimise stress responses to allow you to keep calm, focused, and productive.