You know that sleep is a pillar of good health, along with a nutritious diet and regular physical activity. Not getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night can contribute to a host of health issues, from high blood pressure to an increased risk of obesity.
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But what if your sleep problems only occur occasionally? Can a miserable night of tossing and turning have negative effects on your health?
Pulmonologist and specialist in sleep disorders Samuel Gurevich, MDexplains how a sleepless night affects your mental and physical health and how to get better shut-eye.
Cognitive side effects of not sleeping
If you were up in the wee hours last night, chances are you’re feeling it today. “Sleep is important because being awake is important,” says Dr. Gurevich. “And one or two nights of poor sleep can affect your ability to function well the next day.”
Too little sleep, even for just one night, can cause you to experience several unpleasant cognitive effects:
- Daytime sleepiness.
- Slow reaction time.
- Reduced focus and concentration.
- Memory and attention problems.
- Symptoms of anxiety and depression.
These effects do more than sour your mood (and make you take more coffee). “Paying attention to your environment and your reaction time are processes that keep us safe and focused on our tasks,” says Dr. Gurevich.
When these processes don’t work as well as they should, it can affect your performance at work or school and even put you at risk of car accidents or other accidents, says Dr. Gurevich.
Physical effects of a poor night’s sleep
When you don’t get enough sleep night after night over the long term, it can lead to all kinds of physical effects, including heart health issues.
But even a few missed nights of sleep can take a physical toll on your body, says Dr. Gurevich. “Lack of sleep causes an increase in stress hormones,” he explains. “This triggers an increase in your resting heart rate and blood pressure.”
These changes are usually nothing to worry about if they occur occasionally. “The body and the brain recover quite well after one or two sleepless nights,” says Dr. Gurevich. “But if it stretches over a month or more, it can have lasting effects on your heart health, mental health, and cognitive abilities.”
What are the health benefits of good sleep?
Sleep is not just a time of inactivity. Many important bodily processes occur while you sleep. A good night’s rest benefits your health and well-being in several important ways:
Sleep helps lock memories into your brain. When you’re sleep deprived, you’re less able to remember things you learned while you were awake. Sleep also helps your brain regulate emotions. This is why you might feel irritable and sluggish after a bad night’s rest.
While you sleep, your body works hard to repair itself by releasing proteins and hormones that help restore damaged tissue, including muscle. If you lack sleep, your body heals more slowly. This tissue repair process is also important in helping athletes build muscle and recover after a workout.
Immune system function
Sleep helps boost your body’s ability to fight disease. During sleep, the body produces cytokines – proteins that direct immune cells to fight inflammation throughout the body.
Researchers also found that sleep deprivation increases your body’s production of white blood cells, the same response the body shows when exposed to significant stress. This imbalance in your immune system is associated with diseases such as heart disease.
How to Catch More ZZZs
You want to sleep well and get the amount of sleep you need. So why isn’t your brain cooperating? Unfortunately, falling asleep and staying asleep isn’t always easy. Dr. Gurevich offers these tips for natural sleep remedies.
- Set yourself up for success: Make sure you have a cool, quiet, and dark place to sleep. Avoid bright lights, screens, and caffeine before bedtime. And if you exercise at night, finish it two or three hours before you go to bed.
- Do not panic : The more you worry about the sleep you’re not getting, the harder it is to fall asleep. Do what you can to maximize the chances of a restful night. Then do your best not to worry.
- Treating medical problems: If you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, talk to your doctor. There may be an underlying cause. Common causes of poor quality sleep include chronic pain, sleep apnea, and thyroid disorders.
- Consider your stressors: Try to identify stressors and recognize how they affect sleep quality and duration. Stress, anxiety and depression are among the main causes of tossing and turning.
- To be bored: If you can’t sleep, get out of bed and change rooms, but do something boring. Whatever you do, hang up the phone. Do not watch television or look at anything that emits light.
- Treat insomnia: Finding a therapist trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBTi).
“It takes time to learn these skills,” says Dr. Gurevich, “but it pays dividends throughout your life.”