When it comes to staying healthy, there are a few tips that always make the lists of “best practices.” A healthy diet and regular exercise are a given, of course, but there’s another one—my favorite one, in fact—that you see pretty often as well: getting good sleep.
Getting good sleep is absolutely essential if we’re going to keep our bodies and minds working optimally. In fact, you might say that better sleep protects your health in real and meaningful ways.
How? I’m glad you asked.
The four ways better sleep protects your health
Sleep protects your health in a number of ways, but there are four that really jump out at me.
1. Sleep benefits your immune system.
You rely on your immune system to keep you healthy and ward off sickness, but did you know that your immune system relies on sleep to function properly?
It’s true—people who get poor sleep are more likely to get sick when they’re exposed to a virus, and they’re also more likely to be sick for a longer period of time.
This is largely due to proteins called cytokines, which your immune system releases while you sleep. Since cytokines play a role in protecting your body during sickness, it’s important that your body produce enough of them, which it can’t do if you’re not getting sufficient sleep.
Basically, sleep strengthens your body’s immune response, so you get less sick, less often. Who wouldn’t want that?
2. Sleep deficiency is associated with obesity.
As someone who has recently worked very hard to lose a significant amount of weight, this one hits home with me. Since being overweight can lead to a host of other health problems (diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, asthma, etc.), it’s important to work towards reaching and maintaining a healthy weight.
Better sleep can help. In fact, one study showed that adults who don’t get enough sleep are 55% more likely to develop obesity.
There are a couple ways sleep can help you in this area. One is that sleep-deprivation and the tiredness it causes might make you less likely to exercise, which is bad for your health in general, and particularly bad if you’re trying to lose weight.
Additionally, sleep affects hormones that regulate appetite, specifically ghrelin (which makes you more hungry), and leptin (which makes you less hungry). When you don’t get enough sleep, the amounts of these hormones in your body can get thrown out of whack, making you hungrier. When you’re hungrier, you eat more, and when you eat more, you gain weight.
3. Poor sleep is related to heart disease, stroke, and other medical conditions.
Sleep is important for repairing and healing processes in the body. This includes repairing heart and blood vessels. That could be why insufficient or low-quality sleep is tied to greater risk of heart disease and stroke.
But the risks don’t start there. Poor sleep also increases risk of kidney disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes, not to mention increased levels of stress hormones.
With all the data and research that has been done about this topic, it’s pretty clear that getting enough sleep will only improve your chances of living a healthy life.
4. Better sleep means better mental health.
Maintaining your mental health is important to living a happy, deliberate, and meaningful life. But not only that, your mental health has an impact on your physical health, too. That means that improving your mental health will improve your overall quality of life.
Getting a good night’s rest can benefit your brain function in the short-term (e.g. for an important event or task the next day), helping you stay sharp, focused, and productive. Better sleep is also linked to better learning, energy, memory, and decision-making. But it can also benefit your mental health in the long run.
As many as 90% of people who deal with depression also complain about poor sleep quality. It’s a bit of a “chicken or egg” situation, since it’s hard to say which problem is causing the other. Regardless, it’s impossible to ignore the connection between the two.
Poor sleep can also negatively impact the way you interact with other people, which can take a major toll on your happiness.
How to get better sleep
At this point, there’s no question that better sleep is good for you in many different ways. Which leads us to the next big question: how do you get better sleep?
Design a better sleep environment
Designing an environment conducive to sleep can make a huge difference when it comes to getting better sleep. A better sleep environment can include things like:
- A quality, comfortable mattress and pillow
- Quality sheets in your preferred material
- Keeping the temperature in the room cool
- Keeping your phone or other electronics out of the room while you sleep
- Hanging blackout curtains to keep your room as dark as possible.
If you want a more in-depth look at what it means to “design” a better sleep environment, and how you can do that in your own home, read this post.
Give yourself a bedtime
As adults, we tend to think we’ve outgrown the concept of a bedtime. But you probably wake up at a regular (or at least semi-regular) time, so why wouldn’t you go to sleep at a regular time as well? This tip goes beyond common sense. From a scientific standpoint, regulating your body’s internal clock will lead to easier and more restful sleep.
Manage your exposure to light
Another thing that is going to help set your body’s internal clock and get your sleep-wake cycle back on track is controlling light exposure. This means more than just keeping your room dark when you sleep. Ideally, you would:
- Expose yourself to sunlight first thing in the morning
- Spend time in natural light during the day
- Avoid screens for at least 1 hour before bedtime (that means TV, backlit devices, and yes, your phone)
- Keep your room dark while sleeping, or wear a sleep mask
Watch what you eat (and when you eat it)
Want to be a better sleeper? Then you need to be a better eater! Your eating habits can affect your sleeping habits, so pay attention to them if you want to make better sleep a priority.
Don’t drink too much of anything at night (to help minimize middle-of-the-night bathroom trips), but be sure to avoid alcohol completely, as it can interfere with your sleep cycle. It’s also important to avoid caffeine later in the day, since it can cause sleep problems even hours later.
Try not to eat anything heavy after dinner. At dinner and afterwards, avoid foods that could cause stomach upset. If possible, eat smaller portions at dinner, and eat them as early as you can in the evening.
Cultivate inner peace
Sleep is particularly hard to come by when you’re stressed or overly stimulated in some way. Find a practice or ritual that relaxes you, whether it’s taking a warm bath or shower, meditating, reading, listening to calm music, or any number of other activities. There’s no right answer to this, as long as it helps you feel calmer and ready to rest.
Activities like this can definitely help your mental state in the short term, but it’s also important to work on designing a happy life. As Brianna West wrote, “True self care is not salt baths and chocolate cake; it is making the choice to build a life you don’t need to regularly escape from.”
At Design.org, we’re all about creating this kind of life—a life you don’t feel like you need to escape from. We want to help you create a life that you actually enjoy, one that is full of meaning and allows you to feel like your best and truest self. That’s why we offer free, personalized coaching emails that can help you focus your intention and design a happier, more fulfilling life. (Want to know more? Here’s how it works. You can also follow the link at the bottom of this post to be taken to our free assessment that helps you see where you are and helps us deliver the right messages to you.)
Sleep is something you do everyday (hopefully!) that can drastically improve your health and your life, if you just do a few things to change your habits and improve your sleep quality. Who knows—maybe the person you want to be is just on the other side of a good night’s sleep.
Design a happier life, with Design.org.
Start with our assessment, then continue with our free, personalized coaching service that will help you connect the dots from where you want to be to where you are.