Skip to main content

Sleep is often an afterthought in our busy day. For most of us, instead of ensuring we’ll get the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep a night, we’re more likely to stay up too late (again!) and rely on caffeine and hitting the snooze button a few extra times to cope.

For many people, sleep seems to be more of an inconvenience than an important part of a healthy lifestyle. As they say, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) reports that, according to CDC data, between 7 and 19 percent of adults say they do not get enough sleep each day, and almost 40 percent of adults report falling asleep during the day without meaning to at least once a month.

But did you know that your sleep habits are actually an underrated barometer of your overall health? The amount of sleep you get and the quality of that sleep can actually affect your physical and mental health in ways you don’t anticipate. Sleep is more than something that’s nice to have or something for people who have too much time on their hands. Sleep plays a vital role in your overall health. It’s so important to your physical and mental health that I always ask about sleep during my first session with my psychotherapy clients.

If you need some convincing to get the sleep your body and mind need, here’s why sleep is so important to your overall health.

What happens when you sleep

Quality sleep is far from a passive event. Instead of everything simply powering down for seven hours, your body is actually very busy. For example, while you are sleeping, your body makes any needed repairs to your heart and blood vessels, according to the NHLBI.

During deep sleep, your body slows down your heart rate, relaxes your muscles, decreases your temperature, and slows your breathing so that it can boost your immune system, according to Harvard Health. During other stages of sleep, your body actually increases your heart rate, your blood pressure, your temperature, and your breathing in order to positively affect your learning, memory, and emotional health, although the exact ways are still not understood, according to Harvard Health. Your brain is also busy during sleep, cleaning itself and getting rid of the proteins that build up between your cells during the day, according to Mental Health America (MHA).

What happens when you don’t get enough sleep

When you aren’t getting the quality sleep you need, many different parts of your brain and body can be negatively affected. For example, according to the NHLBI, losing just one to two hours of sleep a night over several nights is equivalent to not sleeping for one to two days in terms of the way it affects your overall functioning.

In fact, you are at an increased risk for a whole host of physical issues including heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, obesity, and depression, according to the NHLBI. This makes sense when you think about how your body makes heart and blood vessel repairs while you are sleeping. According to one recent study, individuals who get fewer than six hours of sleep each night had more inflammatory markers in their blood. If you aren’t getting enough quality sleep, your body doesn’t have the time it needs to make the repairs, which can increase mortality risk. In addition, not getting enough sleep impairs your body’s ability to regulate its blood sugar levels which can contribute to an increased risk for diabetes.

Sleep deficiency also affects your brain. In particular, it can negatively affect the part of your brain that is related to decision making, problem solving, emotional regulation, and behavioral regulation, according to the NHLBI. Because of this, it can take you longer to finish tasks, make your reaction times slower, and you might find you make more mistakes. Researchers theorize this could be due to waste buildup and slower signals between neurons, according to Mental Health America. If your brain doesn’t have the time it needs to clean out protein and “recharge” neurons, your decision-making skills, reaction times, and reasoning abilities may all be impaired.

Poor sleep quality can also impact your mental health. Research has found that individuals who experience insomnia have higher levels of depression and anxiety than those who do not experience insomnia, according to the National Sleep Foundation. In particular, insomniacs are 10 times more likely to have clinical levels of depression and 17 times more likely to have clinical levels of anxiety. In fact, the more frequently a person experiences insomnia and the more frequently they wake up during the night, the more likely they are to develop depression.

And it may come as no surprise that those who suffer in the sleep department face greater risk for getting sick; this is because it is more difficult for your body to fight off infections when you aren’t getting enough quality sleep. In fact, according to Mental Health America, getting fewer than seven hours of sleep can mean that you are 2.94 times more likely to catch a cold. I can personally attest to this. During my last and most stressful semester in grad school, when I definitely was not getting consistently seven hours of sleep a night, I was sick for what felt like three months straight. It was not fun.

Lastly, sleeping better will help you beyond just the present. An article in Monitor on Psychology, a publication of the American Psychological Association, reports that getting enough quality sleep during your young and middle adult years is crucial to protecting you against age-related decline.

Are you sleep deficient?

How do you know if you are not getting enough sleep? The NHLBI reports that a simple indication that you might be sleep deficient is if you find yourself feeling sleepy or nodding off on a frequent basis while watching TV, reading, driving for more than an hour, after lunch, sitting in traffic, being in a meeting or classroom, or during a conversation. If this is you, let it serve as a wake up call (pun intended). Try some of these sleep tips to help give your body the time it needs to recharge and to avoid putting yourself at risk for the negative effects of sleep deprivation. Not only will you start to feel better once you get enough sleep, but your future self will thank you. 

Editors' Note: Verily exists to empower women to be more of who they are. Our Verily Yours membership extends that mission by giving women curated content to simplify their everyday lives and invite members to help shape the editorial direction at Verily. Learn more and join us.