10 Ways Sleep Makes Us Healthier, Happier and More Successful

Picture a three-legged stool. Each leg symbolizes one of the most important things your body needs to stay healthy. One leg is good nutrition—eating whole foods, in reasonable portion sizes; the second represents physical activity—getting in some moderate-to-vigorous exercise on most days of the week. The third leg? Quality sleep, and enough of it. When we don’t get good rest, we’re more likely to become ill, gain weight and feel depressed, and our cognitive skills, including memory and reasoning, can suffer. In the worst cases, sleep deprivation can raise our risk for two major threats: type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

But when you do get an adequate amount of top-notch sleep (seven to nine hours a night is optimal for most adults, though sleep needs vary a lot and you may need more or less than that), the benefits across all aspects of your life—including your physical and emotional health, your relationships and your career—are powerful.

“Like nutrition and exercise, the importance of sleep does not diminish but increases to meet the demands and opportunities of everyday life,” says Param Dedhia, M.D., director of sleep medicine at Canyon Ranch in Tucson.

With that in mind, here are 10 reasons to prioritize shut-eye:

1. You’ll help your brain.

We simply don’t have the maximum brainpower we need to function when we’re pooped all the time. Sleep is the essential down time our gray matter needs to consolidate memories, process emotions and simply recharge so we can focus the next day.

2. You’ll shine at work.

You might think that burning the midnight oil will help you get ahead, but sleep is essential if you want to bring your A-game to your job. Not only do you need a full night’s sleep to be focused and productive, you also need to be rested and recharged to be creative at work.

Research shows that sleep (particularly REM, or the rapid-eye movement stages of sleep) is important for memory and that the dreaming may offer a crucial “incubation” period for the brain to process problems and come up with innovative solutions.

3. You’ll keep your genes in good working order.

Our genes tell our bodies—our cells, to be precise—exactly what to do, day in and day out. For our genes to function properly, we need plenty of sleep.

A 2013 study at the University of Surrey found that chronic sleep deprivation (defined as less than six hours of sleep every night for just one week) affects the functioning of about three percent of genes. That may not sound like much, but it’s actually hundreds of genes, including some that influence inflammation, immunity and how we respond to stress.

4. You can control pain better.

Some 100 million Americans are dealing with chronic pain, from backaches and arthritis to fibromyalgia and neuropathy; and nearly half of people who experience insomnia say they have chronic pain as well. In fact, there’s a circular relationship between the two: Poor sleep makes the perception of pain worse, and pain—not surprisingly—often interferes with sleep. That’s why techniques for getting enough sleep should be a key part of any pain-management plan.

A small 2012 study in the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy found that using cognitive-behavioral therapy that focused on alleviating both pain and insomnia significantly helped the participants when it came to sleep and disability from pain; this two-pronged approach also eased their depression and fatigue.

5. You’ll bounce back from troubles more easily.

Emotional resilience is the ability to recover from setbacks and keep moving ahead. Doing that doesn’t come easily to everyone, but you can build up your capacity to bounce-back by establishing a plan that includes adequate sleep.

When you’re well-rested, you’ll be less on edge, which will make it easier to manage tough feelings like anger and sadness when they arise. “Our emotional awareness offers a huge opportunity for us to live our best life, and sleep is a chance for us to honor our conscious and subconscious emotions,” Dr. Dedhia says.

6. You’ll look younger.

To put it simply, sleep is your skin’s best friend: It boosts the production of collagen; allows for skin repair and cell renewal; lessens breakouts; and helps skin stay hydrated, which contributes to firmness.

A small study of women in their thirties and forties at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland found that participants who were sleep-deprived showed signs of premature skin aging and their skin was less able to recover after exposure to the sun. (In a triple whammy to the poor sleepers, the researchers also found that this group was likely to weigh more.)

7. Your relationships could improve.

Who hasn’t felt snappish when feeling absolutely exhausted? Tapping into our natural kindness and patience is much harder to do when the energy tank is chronically on “empty.” And, over time, that can take a toll on the people closest to you. When you’re well-rested, though, it’s easier to take a deep breath and act in a way that shows the caring, loving person you are.

8. Your sex life will get a boost.

Sleep gives us more energy and improves our mood and libidos. And for men, getting enough sleep, it’s also linked to the ability to achieve and maintain an erection. Why? Poor sleep can reduce levels of both growth hormone and testosterone in guys, two key factors in male “performance.”

9. You may find it easier to deal with the winter blues.

For those with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), the darker, shorter days of autumn and winter tend not only to bring on depression but also sleeplessness. Some research has found that many SAD sufferers tend to think about sleep in much the same way that insomniacs do, in fact. For example, although someone with SAD may spend more time in bed than someone without it, sufferers don’t necessarily sleep more, although they think they do.

Misconceptions about how much sleep you’re actually getting can exacerbate depression symptoms, and understanding this may help you prioritize good sleep during the year’s colder months when you need it most. Treatments that work well for insomniacs—like cognitive-behavioral techniques that change defeating patterns of thinking—may also be useful in helping those with SAD to both feel better and sleep more soundly.

10. You may live longer.

Sleep is the time your body repairs itself and your immune system gets a chance to recharge, enabling you to better fight off disease and illness. Even 30-minute cat naps can help.

Research at the Harvard School of Public Health found daily snoozes can reduce the risk of heart disease by as much as 30 percent. Nighttime sleep and naps both reduce stress, which may be behind why sleep appears to boost longevity.

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