top 5 reasons to prioritise sleep

top 5 reasons to prioritise sleep

Rachael Mackenzie World thai boxing champion

By Rachael Mackenzie 

Sea otters sleep holding hands so they don’t drift away from each other whilst they are sleeping. My husband is in the 13% of the population who, like the otter, wants to keep contact all night, unfortunately for me, with my preference for spacing, this puts me in the 31% of women disturbed by their partner. I sit in the camp that believes that of the different pillars of health (sleep, nutrition, exercise, mental practice), good sleep is the foundation and most important start to optimizing health. (I’ve perfected the “hug and roll” made famous by Ross in series three of Friends!).

So why is sleep so important? Here are my top five reasons:

1) Sleep helps you to live longer.

A large body of evidence shows a correlation between sleeping for less than the desired amount and increased risk of early death, sorry to hit you with that one so early on in our relationship. Additional studies have demonstrated a link between a shortening of your chromosomes telomere with poor sleep duration. The telomere is basically like the plastic cap on the end of your shoelace, it protects your DNA. As you age the telomere naturally shortens until it reaches a critical length when the chromosome can no longer be replicated and the cell dies. A few things have been shown to increase the rate of telomere shortening, oxidative stress from diet, lack of movement, toxins, stress etc. and poor sleep. So, skimping on sleep speeds up the process of shortening the telomere and the speed at which we age. I’m attributing my propensity to wrinkles for the late nights of my youth.

2) Sleep helps you lose weight (and make better decisions about food!).

We’ve all felt it, a bad night of sleep and an inability to stop eating the chocolate digestives, you don’t even like them and you don’t know why you’re eating them, well that lack of sleep has sabotaged your hormones and as a result your good intentions. For those whose January resolution is related to improving your body composition this is a biggie. In studies looking at improving lean body mass it’s found that those who are sleep deprived, when trying to lose weight lose 50% less fat mass than their well-slept counterparts. In addition to this the poor sleepers gain 40% less muscle (lean) mass. Sleep deprivation has a big impact on the hormones that regulate fat metabolism and hunger, causing us to crave fatty and sugary foods, not recognise when we are full and to hold on to the fatty acids and lipids carried in our cells. So holding on to stubborn areas might be less about what you’re eating and more about how you’re sleeping.

3) Sleep makes you smarter.

I’m often asked by parents and teachers about the best ways to help children do well at school. My answer is always, “how much do they sleep” and “how good is that sleep”. Multiple studies place good sleep ahead of most other interventions for improving academic attainment and for good reason. Neuro-biological processes that help us to store memory, develop neural pathways and be creative rely on the neuro-chemical changes that occur during the different phases of sleep. Put simply, whilst you are sleeping your brain is replaying and storing the skills and information you have learnt during the day. Sleeping smarter isn’t just for the kids tough, studies with entrepreneurs demonstrate improvements in decision making, creativity and problem solving in groups achieving their recommended hours.

4) It improves your mental health.

Sleep and mental health are interwoven in a complex and cyclical way. Poor sleep increases our level of cortisol (stress hormone) resulting in heightened amygdala activity. The amygdala is the primitive fight or flight part of our brain that often overrides the more sensible pre-frontal cortex, causing us to respond less rationally and maintain a state of high alert. This heightened activity causes us to feel and respond more aggressively, increases our level of anxiety and reduces our objective thinking. It’s harder for us, and our children, to regulate our emotions when we are tired and this has an impact on the decisions we make. The good news is that after one night of quality sleep a positive impact on emotional wellbeing is experienced.

5) It stops you getting sick.

Sleep enhances immune defence. A lack of sleep increases the pro-inflammatory processes occurring at a cellular level. Much of the ill-health we experience in the result of this inflammatory process. Many of the processes of our immune system are linked to our natural circadian rhythm (our waking and sleep cycle dictated by the daylight hours available) and studies show that when we are not able to follow this natural cycle our risk for a range of illnesses and disease is increased.

So just how much sleep is enough? Of course, everyone has a slightly different circadian rhythm but as a general rule; at age 5 children need 11 hours’ sleep reducing in 15 minute increments to age 13 (9 hours) which is maintained to adulthood when we need an average of 8-hour sleep. In my next blog, we’ll look at what you can do to optimise your families sleep but in the meantime “hug and roll”.

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