Most modern lifestyles cause a lot of pressure, stress, and anxiety. These negative emotions can impact several organ systems, leading to dire consequences. One of the most common side effects of stress and anxiety is sleep disturbance, including:
- Hypersomnia: excessive sleep
- Insomnia: lack of sleep
Insomnia is far more prevalent than hypersomnia, and it could lead to serious health complications and a compromised immune system. 1 People often associate insomnia with facing difficulties when trying to fall asleep; however, the definition of insomnia extends beyond that. For instance, if an individual falls asleep easily but wakes up multiple times during the night, the condition is referred to as maintenance insomnia, an inability to maintain sleep.2 Another type of insomnia occurs in people who feel tired during the day, even after getting sufficient sleep. This is referred to as non-refreshing sleep.
Defining Healthy Sleep
According to the National Sleep Foundation, there are several components that define healthy sleep, including:3
- Short duration between lying down and falling asleep
- Regular sleep consisting of seven to nine hours in a 24-hour period
- Continuous and non-interrupted sleep during the night
- Feeling energized and refreshed the day after
- Being able to be fully productive during the morning hours
- Absence of abnormal behavior during sleep, such as snoring, restlessness, and sleep apnea
Why is Healthy Sleep Important for Whole Body Health?
Neglecting healthy sleep has dire consequences on the whole body, especially the immune system and metabolism. Healthy sleep is crucial for all living things on earth, with some studies suggesting that even single-cell organisms exhibit behavior similar to sleep.
Sleep is necessary to maintain the function of numerous physiological processes, including:
- Memory consolidation
- Immune system optimization
- Reduction of oxidative stress
- Regulation of hormones
An individual with sleep deficiencies is also more likely to experience a constant state of alertness and excessive cortisol secretion. Cortisol is a steroid hormone with powerful anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive properties that may increase the risk of infections and produce other adverse effects when chronically elevated.
The Effects of Healthy Sleep on Different Organ Systems
Healthy sleep provides systemic benefits to the body, including optimization of the cardiovascular system, immune system, and metabolism. Here are a few of these benefits.
Sleep optimizes cognitive function
The process of memory consolidation is directly linked to sleep quality.4 During the day, people encode information in their short-term memory. However, the collected data needs to then get transferred to long-term memory in order to have lasting memories. For this reason, many experts advise against pulling an all-nighter before an exam, as most of the studied material will get lost shortly thereafter.
Sleep maintains a healthy heart
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people who sleep less than seven hours per night are more likely to report having a health problem, including cardiovascular disease.5
Chronic sleep deprivation increases the likelihood of risk factors for heart disease, including:
- Type 2 diabetes
Sleep optimizes the immune system
Healthy sleep promotes the regulation of pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory compounds in the body. Any disruption to this system leads to immunodeficiencies and recurrent infections.
In a 2013 study, researchers found that partial sleep restriction was associated with the excessive stimulation of inflammation-signaling pathways that put patients at an increased risk of developing allergies, autoimmune diseases, and cardiometabolic diseases.6
Sleep promotes weight loss
Multiple research papers and clinical studies have found connections between poor sleep quality and obesity. A 2008 meta-analysis found that individuals with sleep deficiency have a higher risk of excessive weight gain and that 55 percent of adults and 89 percent of children who sleep fewer hours have a higher body mass index (BMI).7
Additionally, sleep-deprived individuals reported eating more meals per day due to increased appetite. Scientists explained this phenomenon as the effect of sleep on the regulation of hunger-suppressing hormones (e.g. ghrelin, leptin).
Habits Supporting Healthy Sleep
There are also many activities that may improve sleep quality. These include:
- Exercising regularly
- Practicing yoga
- Taking a warm bath
There are also some habits that individuals may want to adjust or remove from their daily life altogether in order to improve sleep habits.
Avoid using the phone or laptop before bedtime
Digital devices emit ultraviolet (UV) light. This creates an artificial daytime environment, preventing the secretion of melatonin, a sleep hormone. The National Sleep Foundation suggests avoiding the use of digital devices a few hours before bedtime to prevent insomnia and improve sleep quality.8
Avoid exercise before bedtime
Exercise is extremely important for the body, as it improves the functioning of the cardiovascular system, metabolism, and the brain. Scientists have found a solid correlation between getting sufficient exercise and healthy sleep; however, avoid exercising during the evening because it stimulates the production of hormones that promote wakefulness, such as epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol.9 These hormones induce a state of alertness that makes sleeping more difficult than if an individual exercised earlier in the day.
Limit naps to 30 minutes
Sleeping for long hours during the day can falsely signal the brain that no more sleep is needed, which can lead to acute insomnia defined by the National Sleep Foundation as a brief episode of difficulty sleeping. 10This negatively impacts normal circadian rhythm and healthy sleeping habits.11
Limit the intake of stimulants
While it is certainly helpful to avoid stimulants like caffeine and nicotine before bed, it is important to also remember that the effect of these stimulants can last for hours. If possible, avoiding them altogether will better improve sleep quality.
The Importance of Nutrition to Optimize Sleep
The type of food consumed can influence the quality of sleep positively or negatively. Sleep experts advise eating whole foods because of the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals they contain. Below is a list of nutrients associated with positive sleep outcomes.
Studies found that magnesium improves sleep quality, especially in patients who suffer from insomnia.12
Sources of magnesium:
- Green leafy vegetables (e.g. spinach and kale)
- Fruit (figs, avocado, bananas, and raspberries)
- Nuts and seeds
Vitamin C is an essential vitamin that the body cannot produce on its own. Therefore, the only source to obtain this crucial vitamin is through the diet (e.g. fruits, vegetables). Unfortunately, not everyone obtains sufficient amounts of vitamin C through the diet, often highlighting a need for supplementation. In a 2015 paper, vitamin C was shown to reduced sleep-deprivation induced cortisol release.13
Sources of vitamin C:
- Lemon peel
- Cranberries, blueberries, and raspberries
- Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower
- Leafy greens like spinach and turnip greens
- Many other vegetables
Scientists suggest that sufficient levels of vitamins B3, B6, and B12 may help patients achieve healthy sleep, as these vitamins regulate levels of tryptophan, a precursor to melatonin. Vitamin B6 is associated with inducing vivid dreams and helping in the process of memory consolidation.14 Vitamin B12 was shown to regulate the circadian rhythm to help maintain an organized sleep schedule.15 Vitamin B3 (niacin) also showed improved sleep quality in a patient with Parkinson’s disease who received a low dose of this vitamin. 16
Sources of B vitamins:
- Seafood, poultry, and eggs
- Leafy greens, seeds
One study found that Kava Kava reduces levels of stress and insomnia compared to placebo.17 While Kava showed symptom improvement in patients who suffer from stress and anxiety, it is still unknown how it affects sleep in those without psychological disturbances. Another interesting finding is that Kava may induce drowsiness but does not affect the driving ability of individuals. 18
Turmeric has been used as a traditional spice in Asia for thousands of years. It is known for its potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, and it has gained a lot of popularity among practicing physicians. Curcumin is a naturally occurring compound found in turmeric and it is known to help people sleep better.19
Ashwagandha is an ancient herb that was traditionally used for medicinal purposes. This herb offers several health benefits, including the improvement of sleep-deprivation and helping patients with insomnia.
In a 2019 randomized study, scientists found that taking 300 milligrams (mg) of Ashwagandha twice a day improves sleep quality and sleep onset latency.20 The exact mechanism that led to these results is still unclear. However, another study demonstrated the potent anxiety-reducing effects of Ashwagandha in patients with anxiety and chronic stress.21 This suggests that the ability of Ashwagandha to control stress hormones (e.g. cortisol) may be the primary factor that contributes to improved sleep quality.
In a 2015 study, scientists analyzed the effects of aromatherapy using lavender on sleep quality in postpartum mothers.22 They found that lavender essential oil improves sleepiness during the day.
To identify the role that Passiflora incarnata L. (passion flower) plays in inducing sleep, researchers conducted a lab experiment using rats.23 They used electroencephalogram (EEG), electromyography (EMG), and electrooculography (EOG) to monitor sleep patterns in the rats. At the end of the experiment, they concluded that there was indeed an association between passion flower and sleep induction.
- EEG: an electronic device that detects electrical waves in the brain using small electrodes
- EMG: a procedure used to diagnose any dysfunction in the muscles and the nerves that control them
- EOG: a tool to diagnose macular eye disorders