How sleep affects your health
Sleep is hugely important for encouraging the correct functioning of your immune system, as well as supporting a more positive response to vaccinations. Plus, it helps to maintain repair processes around the body, encourages healthy blood pressure, minimises stress, supports your mood, encourages healthy blood sugar levels and a favourable body weight, plus supports libido.
Why a lack of sleep is bad for your health
I explore the different areas of our health that can be affected by poor sleep:
1. Weak immune system
Do you generally find that you get assaulted by colds and flus when you’re feeling a bit run down? This isn’t a coincidence! Sleep actually helps your body to create the immune cells it needs to combat viruses, bacteria and other pathogens; if you’re not getting enough sleep, it means that you won’t be producing these cells as efficiently. This could explain why you suddenly appear to be more vulnerable to any infections or viruses that are doing the rounds. Plus, crucially, sleep also allows you to respond optimally to vaccinations, it once more helps equip your immune system with the resources it needs to make the most of this tool. (1)
If you want to learn more about sleep and the immune system, I’d suggest reading our Immune Expert, Dr Jen Tan’s blog, ‘How does sleep affect the immune system?’ for a more in depth explanation.
What can you do to support your immune system?
Your immune system is extremely complex and relies on a variety of factors to stay in tip-top
condition. In addition to getting plenty of high-quality sleep, your also need to consider variables like your stress levels, your diet, how active you are and how healthy your digestive system is (70% of your immune cells are found there!). Once again, plenty of fresh fruit and veg are worth mention here in addition to one particular nutrient, vitamin C! If you find that you are feeling a bit run down and starting to experience tell-tale symptoms like a runny nose or a hoarse throat, then you could also consider our natural cold and flu remedy, Echinaforce. Prepared using organic extracts of the Echinacea herb, this remedy has natural anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties.
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Sleep deprivation and stress often come as a joint package, with one problem easily exacerbating the other. Stress, for example, can stimulate the release of cortisol, a steroid hormone that promotes wakefulness and alertness. Naturally, this can be very disrupting for your sleep patterns but, on the same note, since sleep deprivation makes it difficult for you to concentrate and process your emotions or even memories. This means that you’re going to be feeling a bit more volatile following a poor night of sleep which can manifest as irritability, impulsiveness and stress.
The more prolonged your bout of sleep deprivation is, the more elevated your stress levels will become which, over time, can really affect your mental health too. According to a longitudinal study conducted in Michigan, those that suffer from poor sleep are four times as likely to develop depression! (2) A frightening statistic but, it is worth noting, that there are plenty of other factors that could be contributing here too.
What can you do to combat stress?
If sleep deprivation is starting to take a toll on your nervous system, then this should be the first thing you address. As with all the entrants on this list, combatting sleep deprivation is the natural first step. This might mean adjusting your sleep hygiene routine or examining your habits to see if anything could be having an impact. In the case of stress, since this can also cause sleep deprivation, you might want to look at supporting your mood. You can do this by incorporating more foods into your diet that are rich in magnesium, B vitamins and zinc – pumpkin seeds, green leafy vegetables or even a small amount of dark chocolate can help here!
Don’t put too much pressure on yourself and make sure you’re taking some quiet time out every day. Exercise is another fantastic way of bolstering your mood as it helps to encourage the release of happy hormones like endorphins! If you want to read more about fighting stress, I’d highly recommend checking out my blog, ‘Your top 10 stress busting tips!’ or, if you feel that this could be behind your sleep problems, you could try our natural sleep remedy Dormeasan.
3. High blood pressure
High blood pressure is a real red flag in today’s society, with most of us being extremely conscious of the problem and its triggers. What you might be less aware of though, is the role that poor sleep can play in elevating your blood pressure levels. It’s thought that those achieving less than 5 hours of sleep a night are at higher risk of developing high blood pressure, or experiencing other cardiovascular events such as strokes, and this could be due to a number of reasons. (3)
Firstly, as we’ve just discussed, sleep deprivation can raise your stress levels which will inevitably have a knock-on effect on your blood pressure levels too. As we shall soon discuss, poor sleep can also encourage other unhealthy habits that have the potential to upset your blood pressure, such as increased caffeine consumption, food cravings and sedentary behaviour which, together, can contribute to high blood pressure.
What can you do to lower your blood pressure?
High blood pressure might sound quite dire initially, but don’t worry! There’s plenty you can do to lower your blood pressure, as our Circulation Advisor Helen mentioned in her blog, ‘How to lower high blood pressure naturally’. Here, Helen goes into plenty of detail about a few of the lifestyle and diet tips you could try implementing to maintain healthy blood pressure levels, such as regular exercise, increasing your intake of potassium whilst lowering your consumption of salty foods, plus she also mentions a few very useful herbal remedies too!
4. Weight gain
Obesity is becoming something of a modern day epidemic in the West and even here in the UK, it’s estimated that this issue affects 1 in 4 adults and 20% of children between the ages of 10 and 11. (4) These statistics are extremely worrying so it’s worth examining how sleep deprivation could be contributing to this massive problem.
Well, to start with, poor sleep can influence the hormones that regulate your appetite, leptin and ghrelin. Ghrelin actively stimulates your appetite whereas leptin is released to promote feelings of satiety and fullness. The problem is that after a bad night’s sleep, your levels of ghrelin are likely to be elevated which will make you crave fatty, sugary, carb-rich food as a means of fuelling your tired body. Over time this will impact not only your blood glucose levels, but your waistline too, increasing your risk of obesity.
What can you do to maintain a healthy weight?
I’m not about to say that you should avoid snacking completely – many of us need something to get us through that dreaded afternoon slump! However, if you’ve had a bad night of sleep and you know you’re going to be more vulnerable to cravings, then it makes sense to try and prepare in advance. Rather than opting for crisps, cake and chocolate, instead try to pick snacks that are going to be more productive when it comes to boosting your energy levels. Chia seeds, dark chocolate, oats and fresh fruit are excellent options here but, if you need more inspiration, why not check out my favourite snack recipes below!
Healthy Banana Oat Cookies
Cinnamon & Chia Seed Energy Balls
5. High blood glucose levels
If you’re getting unhealthy cravings, whether due to stress or a lack of sleep, or both, then your blood glucose levels are going to go through the wringer. Let’s start with the obvious, the more sugary foods you eat, the higher your blood glucose levels are going to spike and the more insulin will need to be released. Presuming this crucial hormone manages to do its job properly, you’re then going to experience a ‘crash’ which means your energy levels will plummet and those dreaded cravings will just start all over again.
To make matters worse though, according to The Sleep Foundation, chronic sleep deprivation can weaken the efficacy of insulin, affecting how it is secreted after you consume sugary foods. (5) This means that, worryingly, your blood glucose levels may remain elevated for longer and, over time, you may start to become insensitive to the effects of insulin – a major driving factor for the onset of diabetes.
What can you do to lower your blood glucose levels?
Just as with your weight, your blood glucose levels are reliant on your diet when it comes to their overall stability. Naturally, your consumption of sugar is a big issue here and, while you might feel quite safe cutting out the cake and chocolate, sugar can linger in a number of surprising places. Caffeinated beverages, fizzy drinks and even flavoured water can all contain a myriad of sugar and artificial sweeteners so try to keep your eye on these too, if you can. Fortunately, I've compiled a list of the best foods you can eat to lower your blood glucose levels in another of my blogs: ‘8 foods that can help to lower your blood sugar levels’.
6. Low libido
If you’re exhausted and struggling with stress or anxiety, then it’s going to have an impact on your libido; however, research also indicates that, in men at least, sleep deprivation can affect libido by lowering testosterone levels, which in turn, could also cause some other problems for fertility more generally.
In my blog, ‘What does sleep deprivation do to your hormones?’ I discuss this in a bit more depth, so here I’ll just briefly summarise why this could happen. You see, while you sleep your body secretes a variety of hormones such as the human growth hormones, oxytocin and ADH.
If you’re not getting an adequate amount of sleep, then it’s going to affect how these hormones are produced. When it comes to testosterone, your levels of this hormone will rise naturally during REM sleep but, if you’re not spending enough time in this vital sleep phase, then your levels of testosterone might start to decline. So, not only can this impact your libido, worryingly it may also have consequences for your wider reproductive health too.
What can you do to support your libido?
When it comes to your libido, aside from getting your sleep patterns and stress levels under control, there are a number of steps you can take. First, you need to consider your diet – yes, I know, you’re probably fed up of hearing this by now! However, a diet that’s rich in fats and processed foods can contribute to obesity which, in turn, can lower your testosterone levels. Instead, fresh is best – plenty of fresh fruit and veg coupled with protein and healthy fats can do wonders for supporting this hormone. In particular, try to focus on zinc as this incredible mineral is pivotal for a healthy reproductive system and low levels can contribute to problems with testosterone!