I hate that sleep has become a luxury in our society. It drives me crazy that people wear the signs of sleep deprivation on their faces like badges of honor and chastise others for going to sleep early. And if I hear one more person seriously say, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” I might freak out.
You all know that I’m a huge proponent of fueling your body with real, whole foods, but there are so many things besides food that have an enormous impact on your health and sleep may be the single most important.
Why I prioritize sleep
Like many others, I used to pride myself on sleeping less than my peers. I thought that working at a furious pace all day until I passed out at midnight and waking up at 6 am to do it all over again was a sign that I was special or tough. I desperately wanted to do it all – ace every class, make every practice, cheer at every football game, and dance at every party – so I let sleep fall to the wayside and pushed on.
It seemed like a great idea until I was diagnosed with lupus and had a serious reality check. I laughed at my doctor’s suggestion that I should aim for at least eight hours of sleep per night and try to incorporate naps into my day; instead, I fell into a vicious cycle of running myself ragged, falling ill and laying on my couch for a week to recover, and doing it all over again (I think most of us have been there).
Finally, both research and experience convinced me that I needed to make sleep one of my top priorities. This was a critical step to finally beginning to heal and has been essential to maintaining my health without medications for more than three years now.
What’s so great about sleep?
To take a line from my single favorite voice in the health space, Chris Kresser, “you cannot be healthy without adequate sleep. Period.” Sleep is absolutely essential for the basic maintenance and repair of every system in your body, from the neurological system (your brain) to the endocrine (hormonal), immune (illness-fighting), musculoskeletal and digestive systems. While you are sleeping, your body makes critical repairs and restorations that result in better immune function (meaning you get sick less often), greater ability to handle stress (physical, mental, and emotional), clearer cognition, improved athletic performance, and better overall mood and energy.
Symptoms of sleep deprivation
So, what does this mean? If you are struggling with any of the following issues, it may very well be because you are not getting adequate sleep:
- Unstable or poor energy. This may seem obvious, but if you need multiple coffees to get through the day or feel like you “hit a wall” every day at a certain time, you probably need more sleep at night.
- Memory issues, either short- or long-term. This is one of the most common issues I see among my peers who stay up late cramming for tests or big meetings but then can’t remember the information they tried so desperately to memorize at 2 am. It’s also very prominent in those people who always forget that you scheduled a coffee date or planned chat on the phone.
- Frequent illness. If you are that person who has a sinus infection every four weeks in the winter, do NOT go back for your umpteenth round of antibiotics or another pack of NyQuil. If you are constantly getting sick, your body is trying to tell you something! Give it some rest.
- Weight gain or inability to lose weight. Lack of sleep has a serious impact on your hunger signals and food intake as well as your body’s ability to process sugars and carbohydrates. I know that I tend to eat more and have more blood sugar issues when I have even one night of poor sleep…imagine how these issues compound over time if you are consistently not sleeping enough!
- Depression, anxiety, or unpredictable shifts in mood. You know that feeling when all is right in the world after a great sleep? Wouldn’t it be lovely to feel like that every day? Regular mood issues are NOT normal and NOT unavoidable. Everyday issues become much more manageable when you are well rested.
- Systemic inflammation. If you have a hard time recovering from workouts, swollen joints, consistent bloating, an autoimmune disease, or other issues related to inflammation in the body, it is imperative that you give your body the time it needs to repair. I personally can go to sleep with terribly swollen limbs and awaken feeling like my legs lost ten pounds. Sleep heals!
This list is just the beginning, too. I would argue that just about any issue you are experiencing can be solved or at least bettered by sleeping more. Skin issues? Stomach aches? Fever? Get some sleep and tell me if it doesn’t get at least a little better!
How much sleep do you need?
This is the million dollar question and the answer is, of course, it depends. Every person needs a different amount of sleep to function optimally. A good rule of thumb, however, is to get at least 7-8 hours of sleep per night if you are relatively healthy and more than that if you have a chronic illness or other serious health concern; my body’s happy place seems to be at about eight and a half hours when I am feeling well and at least nine when I am fighting off a flare. Keep in mind that all of the negative impacts of sleep deprivation that I mentioned earlier kick in when you get fewer than six quality hours of sleep in a day.
Find your own optimal amount of sleep
One way to find your own optimal amount of sleep is to let yourself sleep as long as you need to every night for two weeks (this is not always a realistic option, but it has helped me in the past) and wake without an alarm. By the end of the two weeks, your body should wake after you have slept long enough for it to be fully rested. For example, if your body needs eight hours of sleep, by the end of the two weeks you should naturally wake up at 6 am after going to sleep at 10 pm.
Go to sleep!
If you absolutely can’t possibly get eight or more hours of sleep every night, don’t complain about it – just go to sleep! Increasing your sleep by even 30 minutes every night can have an enormous impact on your overall health. If there is one thing I want you to take from this post it is the understanding that sleep trumps almost every other factor in your health. So the next time you have to choose between an hour at the gym and an extra hour of sleep, or sending those last few emails and crawling in to bed, GO TO SLEEP!
PS I hope you have enjoyed this string of pictures my cousin took of me sleeping all over New Zealand and Australia. No shame.
I used this article by Chris Kresser as the research source for the more technical information in this post. Check out his article for more details.