Eight health benefits of a good night’s sleep

Good sleep habits can slim you down, give you energy and slow aging. Here’s why you shouldn’t skimp on your zees and three expert tips to fight insomnia

woman hugging a pillow on bed

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Sixty percent of Canadians say they’re tired all the time — and 30 percent admit they get less than six hours of sleep a night. Yet skimping on sleep means you could be inadvertently sabotaging good habits like exercising and eating well. Put sleep higher on the priority list and you’ll wake up healthier, happier and thinner, get sick less often and look younger. (No, this isn’t a dream.) Check out eight sensational ways the sandman works his magic:

1. Sleep slims you down

The problem: Sleeping less can make you weigh more, says Charles Samuels, medical director for the Centre for Sleep and Human Performance in Calgary. One reason: Sleep-deprived people are often drawn to rich, high-calorie foods—a link Samuels uncovered when his research on Calgary police officers showed shift workers are more likely to be obese.

How sleep helps: Lack of sleep can mess with your hormones. One Stanford University study found that people who don’t sleep enough have higher levels of ghrelin, the hormone that triggers appetite, and lower levels of leptin, the hormone that tells the brain you’re full. In the study that translated into real-world weight gain: Those with less sleep had much higher BMIs. Regular rest, on the other hand, reduces your obesity risk by helping hormones function efficiently. As a result, you’re less likely to crave sugary treats that are loaded with empty calories.

2. Sleep prevents diabetes

The problem: Diabetes or pre-diabetes affects nine million Canadians, and that number’s on the rise. Recent research suggests our growing sleep deficit might be to blame, since it affects how the body processes insulin. Plus, a recent study by the University of Chicago Medical Center found that missing out on deep sleep increases your risk of type 2 diabetes by the same amount as gaining 20 to 30 pounds.

How sleep helps: It aids in controlling blood sugar levels, reducing your risk of diabetes, says Samuels.

3. Sleep wards off heart disease

The problem: Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women. And sleep disorders have been linked to hypertension, increased stress-hormone levels and irregular heartbeat, say researchers at Harvard Medical School.

How sleep helps: Sleep regulates your body’s inflammatory response, which plays a role in keeping your heart happy. In its Nurses’ Health Study, Harvard University followed almost 72,000 women and found too little—or even too much sleep (nine or more hours a night)—was linked to a higher risk of coronary heart disease. The obesity-fighting benefits of sleep also help your heart: the healthier your weight, the lower your chances of getting heart disease.

4. Sleep gives you energy

The problem: The energy drain from too little sleep has a huge impact on well-being—especially if you’re too wiped to maintain healthy habits. “When you’re tired, all sorts of things don’t happen,” says Colin Shapiro, professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto and director of the Youthdale Child and Adolescent Sleep Centre in Toronto. “You’re not likely to go to the gym, you’re not likely to have sex, you’re not likely to go out with friends.”

How sleep helps: You save up as much energy from a full night’s sleep as is in a glass of 2 percent milk, say researchers the University of Colorado at Boulder. This extra energy is important during waking hours to get you through the day and still leave enough in the tank for you to make it to the gym or go for a run.

5. Sleep slows aging

The problem: Without sleep, your body may not produce enough of the human growth hormone (HGH) it needs to maintain healthy tissue and organs—and this essential hormone is not usually available (legally) as a supplement.

How sleep helps: Two of the best ways to get your body to produce HGH are through strenuous exercise and sleep. As you age, your pituitary gland produces less HGH, which makes getting restful sleep even more important.

6. Sleep boosts immunity

The problem: If it seems like you catch every cold and flu that’s going around, your bedtime could be to blame, says Samuels. “When you take away or alter sleep, you’re more susceptible to illness.”

How sleep helps: A study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that well-rested people are less likely to catch the common cold. Why? Because researchers believe lack of sleep disrupts the immune system. Research also shows that lack of sleep inhibits disease-fighting T cells, and increases inflammatory cytokines, making you more susceptible to viruses. “Sleep is restorative. Your immune system is compromised if you don’t get enough,” says Shapiro.

7. Sleep gives you an edge at work

The problem: Miss a proper night’s rest and it can shut down your creativity, concentration and capacity to make decisions. “There’s no question that lack of sleep affects memory and your ability to learn,” says Samuels. One survey of 2,000 nurses found the majority had sleep issues that affected their job performance, ranging from an increase in medication-dispensing errors to falling asleep at work.

How sleep helps: Research being done at the University of California Berkeley suggests shortened sleep has a significant impact on mood, memory and learning—and a 2011 study found that sleeping more greatly enhances your ability to remember things. Another study from the University of Florida found proper sleep is the perfect remedy for a bad day at work.

8. Sleep makes skin glow

The problem: The first signs of sleep deprivation usually appear on your face. These include dry, sallow skin, wrinkles and droopy eyelids, says John Arlette, a dermatologist with the Total Skin Care Centre in Calgary. “People who get less than seven hours of sleep have skin discolouration, and their skin doesn’t have that nice reflective quality.”

How sleep helps:
One of the best ways to improve your complexion is regular, solid shut-eye. Some experts believe hormones secreted during sleep help improve skin quality and smooth out fine lines and wrinkles. Bottom line: Sleep is a crucial component of looking good, says Arlette. “Keep skin looking its best by using sunscreen and moisturizer, maintaining a healthy diet and getting enough rest. That’s why they call it beauty sleep.”

Your anti-insomnia plan
These three expert tips will help you drift off to dreamland

1. Cool down the bedroom at night
A recent Australian study found insomniacs have a higher body temperature when getting ready for bed. Create a more sleep-inducing atmosphere by lowering the thermostat at night. “A cooler room helps you fall asleep faster,” says Rachel Morehouse, medical director of the Atlantic Health Sciences Sleep Centre in Saint John, N.B. And if the dry air bothers you in winter months, use a humidifier to make it easier to breathe.

2. Switch your mind to relaxation mode
Anything that calms you will help sleep come sooner, says Morehouse. Try this body-scan technique from Nancy Dranitsaris, a Toronto-based psychotherapist: 1. Lie down in your bed or sit in a comfortable chair, breathing deeply. Start by focusing on your feet. When you inhale, imagine that your breath is expanding past your lungs and moving through your body down to your feet. 2. As you exhale, imagine your breath is moving up from your feet, releasing all tension and discomfort. Do this three times, then move your attention up to your calves. 3. Repeat this for each part of your body all the way up to your head.

3. Burn the midnight oil (for real!)
It might sound odd, but research shows that staying up later may teach you to sleep better. “If you’re just lying there getting frustrated, your bed can become a battleground,” says Morehouse. Instead, consider sleep-restriction therapy. Here’s how it works: If you get up at 7 a.m. every day and normally go to bed at 10 p.m., but you toss and turn for hours, force yourself to stay up until 2 a.m. Once you start getting a solid five hours (usually after a week), move bedtime back a half hour. Continue this until you reach seven hours. The first few days will be tough; you’ll likely feel more tired than usual. But Morehouse says it’s an effective way to retrain your body to sleep through the night.