I love sleep! If you’ve been following me for a while, then you’ve probably heard me talk about it at least once. What can I say? The more rested I feel, the stronger I am—body, mind and creative spirit. The fact is, sleep is critical to our overall well-being.
Recently I was watching an interview with sleep researcher and scientist, Matthew Walker, PhD (he wrote this awesome book), and something he said really resonated with me:
“Sleep has an image problem. We chastise people who get sufficient sleep. We give them this label of being slothful or lazy, and that has to change.”
Damn. He put words to something I’ve been feeling for a while now. We really don’t give sleep the credit or respect it deserves.
Look, I know how it is. When you’ve got a busy life, those 8 hrs might feel like time lost. You might even start to think about how much more you could fit in if you shaved off just an hour or two of rest. Or maybe you’re losing sleep because some nights, that smart brain of yours just won’t shut off.
But here’s the thing: Getting your Zzzs is about more than just recharging on the surface-level. There’s a lot going on when we’re asleep—and getting enough can be a matter of life or death.
So why DO we sleep, anyway?
The bottom line is this: Your body is busy when you’re awake. It doesn’t have the time or energy to do everything it needs to do to keep you happy and healthy. That’s why it’s gotta do some of that stuff while you’re asleep! Ya know, so it can focus. 😉
6 Crazy Things Your Body Does While You’re Asleep
Here are just a few of the fascinating things that happen when you’re out like a light.
1. Helps you make decisions.
I’ve got a whole new appreciation for the phrase, “sleep on it” after learning about the connection between decision-making and sleep. Have a tough choice coming your way? Don’t stay up until the wee hours stressin’ about it. Instead, get your 7-9 hrs so your brain is ready to do some heavy lifting!
Get this: Our brains can even make decisions WHILE we’re asleep. This article describes one study in which participants were asked to group spoken words into two categories. For example, they’d have the option to categorize words like “cat” and “hat” as objects or animals by pressing a button (let’s say right for object, left for animal).
After this task became more automatic for the subjects, researchers continued to give them words to categorize, but this time in a dark room where they were told they could fall asleep. And though they stopped pressing the buttons once they were asleep, the same brain activity required to push left or right persisted. Wow!
And here’s another important way that sleep and decision-making are connected: Research shows that when you’re sleep deprived, there’s more activity in the parts of your brain that analyze positive outcomes and less activity in parts responsible for weighing negative outcomes (source). That means that getting sufficient sleep not only preps you to make decisions, but smart ones. So avoid making any big life changes when you’re exhausted, ok?
2. Saves your memories.
Ever wonder how memories are really made? Well, when we’re snoozin’ away at night, our beautiful brains are hard at work performing a complex restructuring process called “memory consolidation.”
Memory may seem like a simple concept (especially in today’s world of seemingly never-ending cloud storage that can be accessed in an instant), but the information we absorb actually goes on an intricate journey to become stable, recollectable memories.
Say, for example, you’ve just met someone new. When they tell you their name, your brain takes in that information and stores it in your short-term memory. But later when you’re asleep, your brain makes the connections it needs to move that name over to your long-term memory. Think of it like moving blueberries from your refrigerator to your freezer so they’ll last longer.
If you’re curious, check out the video from TED-Ed below—it’ll help you understand what’s goin’ on in your noggin at night when it comes to memory. Plus, it’s a lot of fun to watch.
3. Builds your immunity.
Are you especially prone to catching colds or getting the latest nasty stomach bug that’s going around? Well, let me ask you another question: When was the last time you got a full 7-9 hrs of uninterrupted sleep?
Don’t get me wrong, a whole lot goes into maintaining a healthy immune system. And I know you may have other health challenges, which are important factors to keep in mind. But one thing we do have some control over when it comes to building our immunity is the quality and amount of sleep we’re getting on a regular basis.
Our bodies make cytokines when we’re asleep (source). These proteins support our immune system by targeting infection and inflammation (and you know what inflammation leads to… disease). We simply can’t produce sufficient cytokines to stay healthy when we’re awake, so get to bed, baby!
4. Cleans out your brain’s waste products.
Waste products build up in our brains when they’re busy doing all of that thinking. That’s why we have our glymphatic system—our brain’s waste removal service! The thing is, it’s not all that effective during our awake hours because there’s a lot of other stuff going on up there.
But when we’re asleep, the glymphatic system can more productively flush those toxic byproducts so we can wake up with the space we need to think/feel/do/be our most amazing selves.
5. Regulates your metabolism and appetite.
Not getting enough sleep can slow down your metabolism. One study found that losing just 2 hrs of sleep a night for even a short period of time can lead to noticeable changes. Researchers observed that participants’ cells become more insulin resistant and less able to efficiently take in glucose when they were sleep deprived (source). What’s that mean? Well, if your body isn’t able to process foods at the speed it should, it may lead to weight gain or stubborn weight that you aren’t able to change.
And when it comes to appetite, sleep is essential for making sure you have appropriate levels of hunger-regulating hormones. Research has shown that people who don’t get enough sleep have decreased levels of leptin, a hormone that inhibits hunger, and increased levels of ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates appetite (source). Plus, since sleep deprivation is a stressor, your body makes more cortisol, which can increase cravings for sweets and comfort foods. Put these factors together and you’ve got a perfect storm of appetite confusion!
6. Supports your mental health.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, people with insomnia are 10 times as likely to have clinical depression and 17 times as likely to have clinical anxiety. This correlation between lack of sleep and mood disorders is pretty staggering. So what is it about sleep that promotes good mental health?
This one gets complicated because not only is sleep essential to a healthy mental state, but the lack of it can amplify symptoms of anxiety and depression in very serious ways. Sleep and mood are so intimately intertwined, it can be hard to distinguish cause from effect.
Here’s what we know: “Normal” sleepers cycle between two major sleep categories. When that cycle is disrupted, it throws off our neurotransmitter and stress hormone levels—and that can cause all sorts of problems for our moods, including impairing thinking and emotional regulation (source).
Taking care of our mental health is multifaceted and there’s no “right” way to do it. It’s also important to remember that just like with other health challenges, some factors are out of our control. But we can do our best to get sufficient sleep. And hey, if I can do this one thing to help keep myself happy and healthy, you better believe I’m all in. Whaddya say, are you with me?!
Struggling with sleep? I’ve got just the thing…
You might be thinking to yourself, “Ok, Kris, I get it… Sleep is important! But I lie awake at night/can’t calm down before bed/toss and turn/don’t feel tired/etc.”
Trust me—I hear you and I feel your pain. Maybe you’ve got a health challenge or your stress levels are sky high. Either way, I know that not being able to sleep can be super frustrating. That’s why I’m dedicated to providing you with simple, practical resources to help you rest.
Here are some of my top sleep posts:
- The Ultimate Guide to Better Sleep (this one links out to lots of other resources!)
- How to Wind Down Mindfully and Relax Before Bed
- Top 5 Food Tips That’ll Help You Sleep
- How to Use Essential Oils for Anxiety, Stress, Depression and Sleep
I encourage you to check these out and bookmark them for later—you never know when they might come in handy! Plus, there’s more where that came from. Just search for “sleep” here on kriscarr.com and you’ll find tons of helpful info.
May you and your incredible, one-of-a-kind body rest well tonight, sweetheart. Mwah!
Your turn: What other questions do you have about sleep? As I said, this is one of my favorite subjects and I want to write even more about it! Let me know what’s on your mind in the comments below.
Peace and satisfying snoozes,