The importance of Sleep


Sleep is important to keep our bodies well and healthy. Good quality sleep protects our mental and physical health and has a profound impact on our quality of life. 

The way we feel while we’re awake depends in part on what happens while we’re sleeping. Many metabolic processes take place at night while we sleep to support healthy brain function and maintain physical health. If we are continuously deprived of good sleep our bodies will start to degenerate and chronic health problems can start to arise.

Children and teens also need enough sleep to support their growth and development. Deep sleep triggers the body to release the hormone that promotes normal growth in children and teens. This hormone also boosts muscle mass and helps repair cells and tissues in children, teens, and adults. Sleep also plays a role in puberty and fertility.

A sleep deficiency can have dire consequences. Reaction times and how we think, work, learn and interact with others can be impacted by the amount of sleep we get. Overly sleepy drivers are at risk of having car accidents due to poor reaction times or simply because they fall asleep while driving.

For our brains to work properly we need to sleep. Sleep enhances learning and problem-solving skills. While we sleep, our brains prepare for the next day and form new pathways to help you learn and remember information. It also helps us to be creative and to make decisions.

Studies show that sleep deficiencies alter activity in some parts of the brain. If a person is sleep deficient, they may have trouble making decisions, solving problems, controlling their emotions and behaviour, and coping with change. Sleep deficiency also has been linked to depression, suicide, and risk-taking behaviour. People who are sleep deficient are also less productive at work and school. They take longer to finish tasks and make more mistakes.

Children and teens who are sleep deficient may have problems getting along with others. They may feel angry and impulsive, have mood swings, feel sad or depressed, or lack motivation. They also may have problems paying attention, and they may get lower grades and feel stressed.

On a physical level, sleep is important for the healing and repair of our heart and blood vessels. Ongoing sleep deficiency is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke.

Sleep deficiency also increases the risk of obesity. One study of teenagers showed that with each hour of sleep lost, the odds of becoming obese went up. Sleep deficiency increases the risk of obesity in other age groups as well.

Sleep helps maintain a healthy balance of the hormones that make you feel hungry (grehlin) or full (leptin). When you don’t get enough sleep, your level of ghrelin goes up and your level of leptin goes down. This makes you feel hungrier than when you’re well-rested. Sleep also affects how your body reacts to insulin, the hormone that controls your blood glucose (sugar) level. Sleep deficiency results in a higher than normal blood sugar level, which may increase your risk for diabetes.

Our bodies also require good sleep to keep our immune system’s healthy. Ongoing sleep deficiency can change the way in which your immune system responds. For example, if you’re sleep deficient, you may have trouble fighting common infections.

Lack of sleep can also cause us to have microsleeps. Microsleep refers to brief moments of sleep that occur when you’re normally awake. You can’t control microsleep, and you might not be aware of it. For example, have you ever driven somewhere and then not remembered part of the trip? If so, you may have experienced microsleep.

A common sleep disruptor is a disorder known as sleep apnea. Although I say it’s common, it often goes undiagnosed. This happens when one’s breathing stops and starts throughout the night, it is often accompanied by loud snoring and then coughs and deep breaths when breathing kicks in again. This can result in daytime fatigue and microsleeps. If you find yourself checking your partners breathing or if you wake up gasping regularly, ask your doctor to send you for a sleep study to determine if sleep apnea is the problem.

Too much sleep can also be a bad thing, apart from the health consequences which are very similar to those related to sleep deprivation, over sleeping is never refreshing and most people just feel worse. It seems to perpetuate the cycle and more sleep is just not refreshing.

Each person has different sleep requirements. A guideline is 6 – 7 hours per night. Ideally, we should aim to be asleep before midnight and wake around sunrise. Although weekend sleep-in’s and naps are tempting, we should avoid them, because they can interfere with the quality of our night-time sleep and create disruptive sleep patterns.

Listen to my interview with Brad Kirsten from Radio Cape Pulpit on 21 September 2023 to learn more. Listen to my next interview on Thursday at 7.45am.