Why is Sleep Important for Your Health? This New Study Just Revealed Another ReasonBy Kelsey Ogletree Science-Backed
Maybe you were up late watching your latest TV obsession, working past your typical bedtime to put the final touches on a project for work, or were awake for hours comforting a sick child in the middle of the night. Whatever the reason for lost sleep, you woke up this morning feeling groggy and less-than-ready to start the day, reaching for all the coffee to get you through.
If this is a common occurrence for you, take note: Besides simply making you feel tired, not getting enough shut-eye has been linked to many different health concerns, from obesity to coronary heart disease.1 Yet new research indicates another reason to prioritize your sleep: Getting less than six hours per night or waking frequently increases your risk of accumulating plaque in arteries throughout your body, not just your heart.2
While it’s not always possible to get the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep a night (in fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-third of Americans do not3), research continues to support the importance of getting a good night’s sleep. Read on as we discuss how sleep can impact your health — and the benefits of getting the rest you need. Plus, a few tips to help you tuck in early and get the best zzz’s possible.
What the new research indicates
A new study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology is the first of its kind to show that, “objectively measured sleep is independently associated with atherosclerosis throughout the body," according to the senior author of the study, José Ordovás. After factoring out conventional risk factors for heart disease, researchers discovered that participants who slept less than six hours were 27 percent more likely to have atherosclerosis — the hardening of artery walls due to a buildup of fats, cholesterol and other substances that can restrict blood flow4 — than those who slept seven to eight hours.5
Overall, this means that fewer hours of sleep with more interruptions put participants at higher risk for atherosclerosis, which may increase the risk of several health issues including stroke, heart disease and digestive problems.4 And if you’re trying to lose weight, skimping on sleep could make it more difficult.
Sleeping less can impact your weight
It makes sense that lack of sleep is linked to an increase in body mass index.6 Consider this scenario: You tossed and turned all night, and wake up feeling run down and sluggish. You load up on coffee and grab a doughnut in your morning meeting because you didn’t have time to make breakfast. Later you find yourself scanning the vending machine for a quick pick-me-up because you feel exhausted. Here’s why this happens: Research shows that not getting ample sleep is associated with changes in levels of the appetite-regulating hormones leptin and ghrelin which may boost your appetite.6 In fact, one study showed that women who only slept for five hours per night were more likely to gain weight over a 16-year period compared to women who slept 7-8 hours.7
Not sleeping enough can also impact your ability to make sound decisions, adding to the adverse effects of increased appetite, like choosing a cookie over a piece of fruit. Studies show a sleep deficit impairs your judgment — in a similar way to having too much to drink — by dulling activity in the frontal lobe, your brain’s center of decision-making and impulse control.8 Combined with an increased appetite, it’s easy to see how not sleeping enough can easily affect your eating habits.
The benefits of good sleep
Here’s the good news: getting plenty of shut-eye has a ton of health benefits. Here are a few:
- Support for your immune system. Snoozing may help your immune system fight off colds – in one study, people who consistently slept for seven hours or less each night were more likely to get sick.9
- Reduce your stress levels. Research indicates there may be a connection between getting enough sleep and a reduction in stress levels.10 The American Psychological Association found that people who slept for at least eight hours a night reported feeling less irritable, less overwhelmed and less likely to lose their patience than those who slept less than eight hours a night.11
- Support your weight loss. Getting several hours of restful sleep may help with your weight loss efforts. Without enough sleep, your body’s many processes, including your metabolism and hormone production release, may be affected.12
Practicing better sleep hygiene, or sleep habits, is a simple way to get back on track and get the sleep you need. The easiest way to get more sleep is to go to bed earlier, but that’s more effective when you stick to a sleep schedule – going to bed and waking up at the same time each day – even on weekends.13 Create a bedtime ritual to help you wind down for the night: Try setting a timer to remind yourself to begin getting ready for bed. Find a relaxing nighttime routine that works for you, such as brushing your teeth and washing your face at the same time each night, or setting aside a few minutes to quietly meditate.
Where you rest matters, too. Consider investing in blackout shades for your bedroom, as complete darkness triggers the release of melatonin, a natural sleep hormone.14 (Even being exposed to bright streetlights or the glow from your cell phone can inhibit the release of this natural hormone.) It’s important to make your bedroom a haven for sleeping, as well. Try to avoid keeping a desk in the same area as you sleep, and avoid screen time with your laptop and cellphone at least an hour before bed.
The food you eat before bed can also impact your rest. If you find that certain foods give you indigestion before tucking in, take note. Common foods that can cause heartburn include garlic, onions, chocolate, citrus fruits or tomatoes. It’s also beneficial to cut off caffeinated beverages for at least six hours prior to bedtime, as they’ve been shown to disturb slumber.
Put these healthy sleep habits in practice, and your health and weight loss goals could reap the benefits. Learn more about enjoying a healthier lifestyle by contacting Jenny Craig to book your free appointment.
Kelsey is a Chicago-based journalist specializing in wellness and travel who writes for publications like Shape, Cooking Light and The Wall Street Journal. When she's not working, she loves trying out new healthy recipes and traveling as much as possible.
Favorite healthy snack: Plain Greek yogurt with a few chocolate chips
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