Sleep is a miraculous thing. It truly is. While we lay at rest, dead to the world, our body is hard at work rejuvenating, repairing and replenishing itself from the hardships of the day gone by. Thanks body!
Alternatively when we sleep badly we increase our risk of developing a whole host of physical and mental conditions, anything from depression to heart disease, obesity and even cancer. Yikes!
Below are just some of the almost endless ways the body repairs itself while we sleep.
Sleep versus stress
Cortisol, also known as the ‘stress hormone’ is the chemical that triggers our flight or fight instinct. That makes it very useful substance in some circumstances. Say you’re out for a walk in the woods and you come across a mountain lion. Then cortisol is your very best friend.
In other situations it isn’t such a help. Maybe you’re snowed under at work, you’re having financial or relationship problems, or you’re just worried about climate change. When we worry about these things too, cortisol floods our system. The problem in these situations is that we don’t tend to fight or flee. As a result the excess cortisol in our system isn’t burnt away. It just tends to sits there.
Consistently elevated cortisol levels are bad news for your health. They lead to anxiety, stress and even depression. They have also been linked to reduced immune function, poor bone density, raised blood pressure and raised cholesterol, amongst many other things.
Luckily sleep gives the body and mind reprieve from the stresses of the modern world and our system attempts to regulate the levels of stress hormones like cortisol in our system. The better the duration and quality of our sleep the more potent the stress reduction will be.
Temperature plays a big role in how well we are able to sleep, researchers have found the brain needs to drop by 2-3 degrees fahrenheit in order to initiate sleep. One way to help this process along is to choose a sleeping surface that is fit for purpose.
Sleep versus injury and old age
You may think you’re a good sleeper but just because you get seven hours a night doesn’t mean you are necessarily getting the right type of sleep. You see, not all sleep is created equally.
As we slumber our brain goes through cycles of sleep, think of these as like the different levels of a computer game. The first stages are easy to get through but less rewarding, the later stages require more time but the satisfaction your body receives is much greater.
Once your body has cycled through a couple of stages of light wave sleep, your mind is relaxed enough to enter what is known as ‘slow wave’ sleep. This is the truly deep and rejuvenating stuff that only comes after you have been asleep for a substantial period of time, maybe 45 mins to an hour.
Amongst many other wonderful things, when in slow wave sleep the body begins to release what medical science refers to as human growth hormone (HGH). This is a powerful transmitter that basically tells your body to begin repairing tissue damage suffered during the preceding day.
It’s HGH that will tell the body to repair that thigh strain you picked up from your jog on the beach. It’s also HGH that will prevent those bags under eyes from becoming permanent features.
HGH keeps you fit and helps you looking younger for longer. Thank you HGH and thank you sleep!
Sleep versus Alzheimer’s
Political titans Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan both used to boast about how little sleep they could function on. Fours hours a night was apparently enough to satisfy both the Iron Lady and The Gipper.
Unfortunately in old age both leaders developed quite severe cases of Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers now would be quick to point out that the development of this condition in both these staunch political allies is unlikely a coincidence considering their sleep habits.
While we sleep the brain’s glymphatic system (so called because it’s managed by the glial cells), goes to work cleaning away toxins. The removal of one chemical by-product – amyloid beta – in particular is very important. The presence of this chemical have been strongly linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
Studies have discovered that when we sleep our brain cells can actually shrink by a whopping 60% in size, this nifty little trick allows more space to open up between them and toxins to be flushed away more effectively. If we sleep poorly, or don’t get enough sleep, this process is less efficient and deposits can start to build up. Which could be bad news for the future you!
Think of sleep as taking your car to the mechanic for a tune up. When we sleep well, and get our full eight hours, the car leaves the garage finally tuned and running smoothly. If we don’t get enough sleep, or our slumber is broken, then it’s like driving out the garage before the mechanic has put the bonnet down or tightened the nuts on the wheels. You might make it to your destination but the question is how long will it take you and what condition will you arrive in?
Respect your sleep and your body will repay the favour a million times over.