The importance of sleep

I know first-hand the difference getting a good night’s sleep can make. I struggled with mild insomnia for years, I would go to bed early but struggle to switch my mind off, often not getting to sleep until 2-3am. I was completely exhausted, using coffee to feel vaguely human and often taking afternoon naps to make it through the day. I couldn't concentrate properly and my body always felt heavy and lethargic which impacted on my exercise and my work.


We spend 36 percent of our lives asleep, however it’s only over the last few years that neuroscience has begun to understand what sleep is for.

Sleep switches on hundreds of genes involved in restoration of the body and repair of metabolic pathways. Not getting enough can alter activity in genes that control metabolism, inflammation, immunity and stress.

A study involving volunteers at Surrey University in the UK were forced to sleep less than six hours a night for a whole week. At the end, they had altered function in 711 genes that were critical for general health, and since then, scientists have concluded that prolonged lack of sleep can result in chronic low-level inflammation which can lead to a range of serious health conditions and cardio-metabolic diseases such as hypertension, stroke or irregular heartbeat.

Sleep also helps the brain process information and lay down memories. “What science thinks happens is that when you’re awake, certain neural circuits in your brain are constantly bombarded with information“, says Dr Hillman. As the day wears on they start to lose their sensitivity.

“They go through a phenomenon called downregulation, meaning they lose their sensitivity as the bombarding gets harder. Eventually, the tiredness and the lethargy that you experience and the less efficient processing of the information by the brain, plus slower reaction times, are a manifestation of that. During sleep those circuits get rested and they upregulate; their sensitivity to these signals returns and they’re ready to receive a whole lot more information the next day.”

Russell Foster, a circadian neuroscientist from Oxford University explains that “memory consolidation is very important. However, it’s not just the laying down of memory and recalling it. Our ability to come up with novel solutions to complex problems is hugely enhanced by a night of sleep. Sleeping at night enhances our creativity.”


The main functions of sleep are repair, restoration and the laying down of memories but there are many more areas that sleep is essential for:

Growth hormone is released during sleep. This hormone stimulates cell growth including the reproduction and regeneration of cells as well as being with increased metabolism. Getting a good night’s sleep is essential if you want to get the full benefits of hitting the gym or just for general health.

Cortisol levels (our stress hormone) are decreased during sleep and as I mentioned in a previous post, a lack of sleep can increase cortisol levels. Not only does elevated cortisol levels impact upon your weight but it also lowers your growth hormone levels which in turn impacts upon your healing and cell regeneration.  Hormone homeostasis: The stress hormone cortisol is responsible for many processes in the body, and while sleeping can lower its levels, not getting enough sleep can raise them. Increased cortisol levels also impinge the production of growth hormone, therefore slowing down healing and impairing normal cell regeneration.

Sleep helps to reduce appetite and hunger whilst a bad night’s sleep increases appetite and hunger by elevating the body’s concentrations of the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin and decreasing the levels of the satiety hormone leptin. You may have experienced it yourself that when you are tired you eat lots of junk food just to make it through the day.

Inflammation is linked to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, arthritis, and premature aging. Research indicates that people who get less sleep—six or fewer hours a night—have higher blood levels of inflammatory proteins than those who get more.

A 2010 study found that C-reactive protein, which is associated with heart attack risk, was higher in people who got six or fewer hours of sleep a night.

People who have sleep apnea or insomnia can have an improvement in blood pressure and inflammation with treatment of the sleep disorders.

These are just some of the important ways that sleep affect our health. If you suffer from sleep problems I highly recommend creating a bedtime routine and being strict with yourself. I found that getting rid of my TV in the bedroom and reading in bed made a huge difference. As does turning off turning off my phone at 9pm and limiting caffeine to pre 2pm. There are also some pranyama (breathing) techniques which promote relaxation as well as a guided meditation focuses on encouraging sleep. I shall be posting the breathing techniques on my Youtube channel so watch this space if you would like to try them.

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