Can sleep really affect your quality of life?
In September, leading high-street supermarket Sainsbury’s released the findings of their inaugural Living Well Index, a national study conducted in partnership with top researchers at the National Centre for Social Research and Oxford Economics. This experiment aimed to explore how people in the UK feel about their quality of life and what factors are associated with living well.
Out of a maximum score of 100, it was uncovered that Britons had a Living Well Score of 62.2 and that there were around 8 factors that separated the bottom 20% of the population in the living well index from the top 20%: mental health, economic activity, overdue debts, socialising, support network, sex life satisfaction and sleep quality.
However, sleep quality was the biggest factor, with the report itself stating that ‘better sleep is the biggest single contributor to living better.1’
So is sleep the secret to happiness? According to this study, it certainly seems like it, although some of you are probably bewildered at how sleep managed to beat enormous stressors such as disposable income and overdue debts!
Well, let’s take a look at the other 7 factors explored in this study. Arguably, sleep can have an impact on each of them, with poor sleep quality exacerbating them while good sleep quality may have a more positive influence.
1 – Support network
After sleep, support network made the second biggest difference, with 73% of those living well also claiming to have strong support networks composed of family, close friends and colleagues. Of course, it’s no secret that, in times of stress, having people you can rely on for emotional support really does make a big difference but could getting a good night’s sleep arguably influence this factor as well?
There is some evidence to support this idea, with a study conducted in 2014 finding that sleep loss and insomnia can affect emotional reactivity and social functioning. Although more research is needed, it is thought that sleep deprivation can influence how we express our emotions and impair emotion recognition.2
Another study conducted by Dutch neuroscientist T.W. Boonstra and his colleagues seems to support this idea, as they found that sleep deprivation can make the brain less responsive, compromising your ability to recognise information, with more research even implying that sleep deprivation can even make it harder to have constructive interactions with others!3
So, with this research in mind, could sleep affect our social interactions with those closest to us? The evidence is certainly pointing in that direction as poor sleep quality may make us less likely to seek help from others or impair our ability to recognise help when it is being offered.
Now, that’s not to say that getting a good night’s sleep will immediately fix all your social problems and make you the centre of attention but it certainly doesn’t look as though it could hurt and it may help you to form a closer connection to those closest to you.
2 – Sex life satisfaction
Just as poor sleep can affect your interactions with others, it’s also plausible that it can even have an impact on your private life. It’s probably no secret that if you’re exhausted, you’re less likely to care about sex or intimacy with your significant other but some studies do take this connection between sleep and your libido a bit further.
In 2011, scientists from the University of Chicago found that men who are extremely sleep deprived (getting less than 5 hours sleep a night) may have lower levels of testosterone, having a serious impact on their libido.4
It turns out that women aren’t immune from this effect either, as another study also found that a good night’s sleep greatly helped to enhance a women’s sex drive, with every extra hour of sleep making the women that participated in the study 14% more likely to engage in sexual activity.5
These findings do certainly seem to indicate that sleep can have a noticeable impact on our sex life, influencing our libido and making us less disposed towards physical intimacy.
3 – Mental health
It’s no secret that sleep can have a demonstrable effect on your stress and anxiety levels, with sleep deprivation making you more prone to stress and stress in turn making you more pre-disposed to sleep deprivation, forming a vicious cycle that can be hard to break. What about other areas of your mental health though?
A complex mental illness such as depression can cause a number of symptoms including sleep problems; however, sleep deprivation itself is unlikely to cause depression. It may contribute towards the condition, with some evidence hinting that insomnia sufferers may be more at risk of developing depression compared to those that enjoy a better quality of sleep.6
Nevertheless, more research is needed in this field, however getting a good night’s sleep may help to improve other issues such as stress and anxiety, which I mentioned earlier. Getting a good night’s sleep won’t necessarily diminish all your sources of stress but it can make you better equipped to deal with them and less likely to feel overwhelmed.
4 – Economic activity
Economic activity – this expression may confuse some people but it simply refers to the idea of performing an activity in exchange for money i.e. earning income. So how can getting a good night’s sleep improve your job satisfaction? It’s not exactly a mystery how sleep deprivation can affect your work performance – after all, a lack of sleep can impair your cognitive abilities, making it difficult for you to concentrate and take in new information.
If you are struggling to concentrate, finding it difficult to perform certain work-based tasks or activities, or worst case scenario, fighting the urge to nod off at your desk, then it’s unlikely you’ll be getting much satisfaction from your job and you may find it more difficult to cope with your workload.
While some companies such as Google are installing napping pods for their employees, most of us are a long way off being allowed to nap at work so getting a good night’s sleep can be crucial when it comes to improving your performance and reducing any stress you may be experiencing!
5 - Spending time outdoors
Okay, admittedly it may seem a little like we’re stretching it with this one. What on earth does getting a good night’s sleep have to do with spending more time outdoors? Even I was surprised when I started researching this one because, as it turns out, the two are connected.
It’s believed that spending more time outside can help to improve your sleep patterns, with researchers finding that a week of camping may help to reset your body clock to be more in sync with nature’s light and dark cycle7, and another study finding that more exposure to natural light can make it easier to fall asleep at night.8 Spending more time outside is also likely to expose you to sunlight, making it easier for your body to absorb vitamin D and diminishing your chances of developing a deficiency.
Now that’s all well and good but how can sleep encourage you to spend more time outdoors? Well admittedly, there isn’t such a direct relationship here. Naturally, getting a good night’s sleep can improve your mood and energy levels, making you predisposed to being more active and more enthusiastic about venturing out of your home.
6 - Socialising
As I mentioned earlier, sleep deprivation can have a profound effect upon your social interactions, sometimes making you feel less open to communication with others. Again, if you feel fatigued, it’s likely you won’t have the energy required to go out for dinner with your friends and, if sleep is starting to affect your stress levels, you may be more prone to outbursts of irritation or bouts of social anxiety.
However, it isn’t only your desire to socialise that may be impacted. In one experiment published in the Journal of Neuroscience, 18 adults viewed a variety of facial expressions, ranging from friendly, to neutral, to threatening. MRI scans revealed that sleep deprivation altered the emotional intelligence of the participants, who could not recognise the difference in facial expressions.9
This means that even if an invitation is extended to you, you may not understand or recognise the gesture, making it difficult for you to sincerely communicate with those around you. However, if you are getting enough rest and sleep, the chances are that some of these issues may be alleviated and you may find it easier to converse and communicate with those around you.
7 – Overdue debts
When reading the report, I was surprised by how low financial worries initially ranked when it came to people’s living quality or emotional wellbeing. A 50% increase in disposable income, for example, only earned a 0.5 increase on the Living Well Score.10
Nevertheless, financial woes are undoubtedly a source of stress for many of us and at times, it’s likely that this stress could be fuelling your sleep problems, becoming a part of that vicious cycle that I mentioned earlier.
However, sleep can affect your cognitive functions, making it difficult for you to concentrate and impairing your judgement. In an experiment conducted by the Western University in Ontario, participants were made to stay up until 0400 before being allowed four hours of sleep and given a series of tests to complete. The results was that there was less activity in the frontal and parietal lobes, the parts of your brain responsible for problem solving and decision-making, in comparison to when the subjects had been allowed more sleep.11
This means that if you are struggling with larger financial decisions, it’s likely that finding a solution will seem harder as you may struggle to assess the situation and lack the ability to find an alternative solution. Not to mention you will be more susceptible to mood swings, making it easier for you to become overwhelmed, flustered or irritated.
Not a good situation! It might seem difficult but getting a good night’s sleep could really make a difference to your brain function, enabling you to more rationally work towards a solution to your financial woes.