When we think about being healthy, we tend to think about the food we eat or how much exercise we are getting. We may even judge our health based on how happy we are mentally and emotionally. The thing that most of us don’t often think about when we talk about being healthy, however, is the quantity and quality of sleep we are getting.

Sleep is often overlooked as a component of whole-self health, but it is truly the foundation for quality and longevity of life. When we sleep our bodies have a lot going on. Our brain needs to organize and file away all the information we took in during our waking hours. Our muscles and tissue need to repair and strengthen. Our hormones need time to synthesize. Every function of our body during our waking hours needs our sleeping hours to reset, repair, and refresh. With all these processes in mind, it’s no wonder why sleep is so important. The sad part is that many of us don’t get near enough. Even worse yet, as a culture we tend to take pride in being able to “function” on little sleep. (I have been guilty of this myself!)

As adults, we require between 7-9 hours of sleep a night to allow our bodies and our brain enough time to do their thing. (Children require even more sleep…likely because of all the learning and growing they are doing during the younger years). Unfortunately, sleep is not like a bank. You can’t accumulate sleep deprivation and then get it back by napping. It doesn’t work like that. Research has shown that you cannot actually get back the sleep that you lose. This also means that you can’t get back the time that your body did NOT have to do all of that resetting, repairing, and refreshing.

It only makes sense that if you are not getting enough sleep on a regular basis, you are not functioning at your best during waking hours. Think about exercise and what you are asking your body to do. Just like with food, your muscles need healing time during your sleep. If they are never getting enough of that, then you are going to be more subject to injury when you exercise or even just during the course of your day. It also makes sense that if your body is deprived of enough time to restore and repair all your vital organs on a regular basis, your risk of disease ends up being MUCH higher. Sleep supports all the major functions of our organs, so being sleep deprived on a regular basis also increases risk of sickness, heart disease, kidney disease, blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke.

Sleep is vital to healthy brain function. Because of this, if you are not getting enough sleep, you probably find it difficult to think straight, make decisions quickly, solve problems and even control your emotions. Much research has been done that links sleep deprivation to depression and suicide. Science has also proven that chronic sleep deprivation is greatly increases the risk of Alzheimer’s and Dementia.

Sleep is necessary for hormone synthesis. Basically, this means that your hormones are leveling out…and hormones control everything in our bodies! A powerful example of this involves the hormones that directly relate to hunger and fullness. Not getting adequate sleep causes the body to release more of the hormone Grehlin, which is the one that makes us feel hungry. It also produces less of the hormone Leptin, which is the one that tells the brain we are full. This means that our sleep directly affects our ability to lose weight or affect a change to our body. Ever been frustrated by your “will power” in eating? Maybe its time to analyze your sleep.

You may be thinking that napping is a good solution if I you don’t get your 7-9 hours of sleep a night. Unfortunately, this is not the case. While napping can be a good thing to temporarily restore alertness and performance after sleep deprivation, a mid- afternoon nap doesn’t provide the same benefits as our night sleep when it comes to everything our body needs to do during this time. This goes back to what we talked about … you truly can’t make up for sleep you are losing a regular basis.

If you are getting adequate sleep each night but never feel rested, your sleep quality may be the issue. We go through different phases of sleep during the night and each phase of sleep is important for our bodies. To determine if you are spending enough time in each phase of sleep, especially deeper sleep periods, you need to ask yourself how you feel during your day. If you can’t sit still for an hour without getting drowsy or dozing off, that’s a good indicator that you are not getting enough quality or quantity of sleep.

The following are some tips on improving (both quality and quantity of) sleep:

  1. Allow enough hours during the night for sleep. This may mean adjusting your routine to go to bed earlier or even shifting your schedule to wake up later.
  2. Get into a routine with your sleep and try to stick to it (within an hour or so), even on weekends.
  3. Shut down electronics at least an hour before sleep. The bright lights from phones and computer screens signal the brain to be alert.
  4. Don’t eat heavy or large meals late. If you are going to bed with a full stomach, your body is having to devote its energy to digesting your food instead of working on the other vital functions it needs do during sleep.
  5. Exercise! The more energy you expend during the day, the easier it will be to fall asleep and to sleep well at night. Leading a sedentary life can greatly hinder sleep.
  6. Stay away from sleeping pills as much as possible. No quick fixes! These can not only affect you long into the next day, they are addictive and can impair a long-term change to sleep.

To sum it up, sleep is the foundation of all things health. If your energy is low, assess your sleep. If you are moody, cranky, depressed, overly emotional, or struggle with your memory, assess your sleep. If you seem to be doing everything right with eating and exercise but still can’t lose weight or are not getting the results you want in the gym…yep, you guessed it. Assess your sleep. Remember, it’s not a badge of honor to “be able to function” on minimal sleep. You are not actually accomplishing more or achieving greater results by having those extra waking hours. Quite the opposite. You are actually shortening your life, increasing your risk of injury and disease, and functioning at a fraction of your potential. NOW GET SOME SLEEP!