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What Happens When We're Asleep

Your body needs sleep, just as it needs air and food to function at its best. During sleep, your body heals itself and restores its chemical balance. Your brain forges new thought connections and helps memory retention. Without enough sleep, your brain and body systems won’t function normally. It can also dramatically lower your quality of life.

Sleep deprivation is caused by consistent lack of sleep or reduced quality of sleep. Getting less than 7 hours of sleep on a regular basis can eventually lead to health consequences that affect your entire body. 

A good night's sleep is incredibly important for your health. Here are only a few reasons why quality sleep is one of the most important factors for a happy & healthy lifestyle: 

1. Poor Sleep is Strongly Linked to Weight Gain 

People with short sleep duration tend to weigh significantly more than those who get adequate sleep. In fact, short sleep duration is one of the strongest risk factors for obesity. Sleep affects the levels of two hormones, leptin and ghrelin, which control feelings of hunger and fullness. Leptin tells the brain  that you’ve had enough to eat. Without enough sleep, your brain reduces leptin and raises ghrelin, which stimulates your appetite. The flux of these hormones can explain nighttime snacking, or why someone may overeat later in the night. People sleeping 4-5 hours a night will on average consume 200-300 extra calories per day which translates to 10-15lbs of extra body mass.

2. Good Sleep is Directly Linked to Improved Brain Productivity 

Sleep deprivation negativity impacts your mental abilities and emotional state. You may feel more impatient or prone to mood swings. It can also compromise decision-making processes and creativity. Sleep doesn’t improve the places where we’re already good in terms of motor skills, sleep is intelligent – it finds friction points or motor skill deficits, and smooths them out, or improves them. During dream sleep, we take old information, and combine it with new information we’ve learned, and form new connections and associations. For this reason, we might often find new solutions to previously unsolvable problems after a good sleep. Fun fact: Thomas Edison used sleep as a vital tool for creativity

3. Poor Sleepers Have a Greater Risk of Stroke or Heart Attacks 

Sleep affects processes that keep your heart and blood vessels healthy, including those that affect your blood sugar, blood pressure, and inflammation levels. It also plays a vital role in your body’s ability to heal and repair the blood vessels and heart. People who don't sleep enough are more likely to get cardiovascular disease, and suffer from heart attack or stroke. Short sleep duration is closely linked to early mortality rates. The shorter you sleep on average, the shorter your life.

4. Good Sleep Maximizes Athletic Performance 

Sleep has been shown to enhance athletic performance. In a study on basketball players, longer sleep was shown to significantly improve speed, accuracy, reaction times, and mental well-being. Less sleep duration has also been associated with poor exercise performance and functional limitationLonger sleep has been shown to improve many aspects of athletic and physical performance.

5. Sleep Improves your Immune System Functions 

While you sleep, your immune system produces protective, infection-fighting substances like antibodies and cytokines. It uses these substances to combat foreign invaders such as bacteria and viruses. Sleep deprivation prevents your immune system from building up its forces. If you don’t get enough sleep, your body may not be able to fend off invaders, and it may also take you longer to recover from illness. While you sleep, your brain cleanses itself of metabolic toxins that have accumulated in your skull during the day. One of those toxins is beta amyloid, which is responsible for the underlying cause of Alzheimer's Disease. The less you sleep, the more this plaque builds up. Insufficient sleep is the most significant lifestyle factor for determining whether or not you'll develop Alzheimer's Disease.


Proven Tips to Enhance Quality of Sleep 

A good night’s sleep is just as important as regular exercise and a healthy diet. Research shows that poor sleep has immediate negative effects on your hormones, exercise performance, and brain function. It can also cause weight gain and increase disease risk in both adults and children. In contrast, good sleep can help you eat less, exercise better, and be healthier. 

Over the past few decades, both sleep quality and quantity has declined. In fact, many people regularly get poor sleep. 

If you want to optimize your health or lose weight, getting a good night’s sleep is one of the most important things you can do. Here are some ways you can improve your sleep: 

1. Increase bright light exposure during the day

  • Your body has a natural time-keeping clock known as your circadian rhythm. It effects your brain, body, and hormones, helping you stay awake and telling your body when it's time to sleep. Natural sunlight or bright lights during the day helps keep your circadian rhythm healthy. This improves daytime energy, as well as nighttime sleep quality and duration. 

2. Reduce Blue Light Exposure in the Evenings 

  • Exposure to light during the day is beneficial, but nighttime light exposure has the opposite effect. Again, this is due to its effect on your circadian rhythm, tricking your brain into thinking it’s still daytime. This reduces hormones like melatonin, which help you relax and get deep sleep. Blue light — which electronic devices like smartphones and computers emit in large amounts — is the worst in this regard. To block Blue Light from devices you can: 

  1. Wear glasses that block blue light

  2. Download an app such as "f.lux" to block blue light on your laptop or computer.

  3. Install an app that blocks blue light on your smartphone. These are available for both iPhones and Android models.

  4. Stop watching TV and turn off any bright lights 2 hours before heading to bed.

3. Don't consume caffeine late in the day 

  • Caffeine can stay elevated in your blood for 6–8 hours. Therefore, drinking large amounts of coffee after 3–4 p.m. is not recommended, especially if you’re sensitive to caffeine or have trouble sleeping. 

4. Reduce irregular or long day-time naps 

  • While short power naps are beneficial, long or irregular napping during the day can negatively affect your sleep. Sleeping in the daytime can confuse your internal clock, meaning that you may struggle to sleep at night. Long daytime naps may impair sleep quality. If you have trouble sleeping at night, stop napping or shorten your naps.

5. Don't eat late in the evening 

  • Consuming a large meal before bed can lead to poor sleep and hormone disruption.

6. Take a relaxing bath or shower 

  • A relaxing bath or shower before bed is another popular way to sleep better. 

  • Studies indicate that they can help improve overall sleep quality and help people — especially older adults — fall asleep faster. In one study, taking a hot bath 90 minutes before bed improved sleep quality and helped people get more deep sleep. Alternatively, if you don’t want to take a full bath at night, simply bathing your feet in hot water can help you relax and improve sleep. 

Foods That Help You Sleep 

1. Poultry 

  • Chicken or turkey has tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid that you can only get from what you eat and drink. It helps your body make serotonin (a relaxing mood hormone) which then helps your body make melatonin (a hormone that controls sleep cycles).

2. Fish 

  • Vitamin B6 is abundant in fish, with salmon, tuna, and halibut having the most. B6 is what makes melatonin, which is normally triggered by being in the dark. By eating fish for dinner, you can give that melatonin a head start before turning out the lights.

3. Yogurt 

  • Calcium processes the hormones that help you sleep, tryptophan and melatonin. Calcium, of course, can be found in anything dairy related if you don’t like yogurt. Other things you can try are milk or cheese and crackers

4. Kale

  • Like yogurt, this leafy green is also rich in calcium which is important in making those sleep hormones go to work. 

5. Bananas 

  • They are high in potassium which helps to keep you asleep throughout the night. It also has tryptophan and magnesium which are natural sedatives.

6. Whole Grains 

  • These grains encourage insulin production that result in tryptophan activity in the brain. They also have magnesium which is said to help you stay asleep. When magnesium levels are too low, you are more likely to wake up during the night.

7. Honey 

  • Glucose in honey lowers levels of orexin, a neurotransmitter in the brain that makes you more alert. Honey will put that alertness in reverse.

8. Nuts

  • This includes walnuts, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds. These all boost serotonin levels by having magnesium and tryptophan.

9. Eggs

  • Eggs are popular in the morning, but they also can make you sleepy due to having tryptophan. Try having some breakfast for supper and see what happens.

10. White Rice 

  • White rice has a high glycemic index. This simply means that it will give you a natural increase in blood sugar and insulin levels, which in turn, helps tryptophan go to work in your brain faster.

Matthew Walker is Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and Founder and Director of the Center for Human Sleep Science. Watch this podcast below to learn first hand from a neuroscientist, who specializes in sleep, why a good night's rest is important. Check out his book "Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams" on Amazon.

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