The Importance of Sleep

Sleep is a vital part of our mental and physical health that serves many different functions but is often neglected. In 2015, 43% of U.S. teens reported sleeping less than 7 hours a night, which means that nearly half of U.S. teens are significantly sleep deprived. The consequences of not sleeping enough are far from few, and a healthy sleep schedule can positively affect your mental and physical health greatly.

One of the aforementioned functions of sleep is helping you remember things that you experienced from the previous day. Sleep allows your brain to sift through memories in order to see which ones are deemed worth remembering and which ones can be forgotten. One of the ways it may do this is by cutting off connections that are not needed in the brain. Synaptic homeostasis hypothesis, a leading theory of sleep function, suggests that when you are sleeping, connections throughout your brain are weakened in order to counter the strengthening of those same connections when you are learning throughout the day.

Sleep also maintains your physical health in a variety of ways. One of these is by regulating the balance of hormones in your body such as leptin, ghrelin, and insulin. Insulin regulates the amount of glucose in your body. Therefore, inadequate sleep can result in an increase in blood sugar level. For this reason, chronic sleep deficiency is linked to a higher risk of stroke, diabetes, kidney disease, and cardiovascular disease. Throughout the day, toxins build up in your brain during normal daily activities. One of these toxins is beta-amyloid, which is a protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Since your brain expands during sleep, cerebrospinal fluid is able to clear the debris, which is known as the glymphatic system.

Your mental state and sleep are closely intertwined and often impact each other. University of Pennsylvania researchers reported that subjects who only slept 4.5 hours a night felt more stressed, angry, sad, and mentally exhausted. After a sleepless night, feelings of anxiety, anger, and stress can arise.  

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many people’s sleep schedules have shifted, causing them to go to bed much later than they normally would. Our lives have been drastically altered due to self-isolation, which impacts your circadian rhythm. Your circadian rhythm is an internal “clock” that has a key role in regulating your sleep pattern. It is heavily affected by exposure to natural light and meal times, which are both things that might have been changed due to quarantine. However, remember that one night of irregular sleep will not ruin your sleep schedule, it is when sleep is disrupted for prolonged periods of time that your sleep schedule becomes impacted.

The uncertainty and stress that you may experience during this time can increase stress hormones which regulate your sleep cycle. If levels of stress hormones such as cortisol are too high before bedtime, sleep can be disrupted.  Rather than trying to fix this in one night, making small changes to your routine can be beneficial. 

One tip is to get rid of things that affect your ability to fall asleep. Glowing screens can stimulate your brain for several hours, so put them away two hours before you go to bed.  Caffeine is a known stimulant, so restricting caffeine intake to before noon can also help you go to sleep better. Things like exercise and work can also restrict your ability to fall asleep, so consider relaxing for an hour before you go to bed.

Although none of us know what life will be like when the pandemic is over, fixing your sleep schedule during quarantine and being able to reap the medical benefits may help you be more productive and feel less tired when quarantine is over.

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