The importance of sleep: are you underestimating how much you need?

January 24 2018

The importance of a good quality sleep is often overlooked, even by those who try and live the healthiest lifestyles. As the brain can outwardly function on five hours of rest, or sometimes even less, surely it’s easy to think that it’s okay to miss a few hours here and there.

We’re all guilty of not going to bed when we know we should, but this can actually have a big impact on our day as a whole. Everyone knows that too much sugar is bad for us - too little sleep can be just as damaging.

Dr David Hillman, one of the world’s leading experts on sleep, likens our health to a three-legged stool, with exercise, diet and sleep making up the legs. Many people are happy to balance on a two-legged stool - just diet and exercise - with sleep considered optional. In reality, we would all be much more comfortable and balanced with all three legs of the stool working.

The benefits of getting enough sleep

Restoration and Repair

We spend, on average, a massive 36% of our lives asleep. We know this is for restoration and repair, with our sleep switching on hundreds of genes involved in the restoration of the body and repair of metabolic pathways. Not getting enough can actually alter activity in genes that control metabolism, inflammation, immunity and stress.

Laying down memories

There is also powerful evidence that sleep helps the brain process information and lay down memories. According to Dr Hillman:

“What science thinks happens is that when you’re awake, certain neural circuits in your brain are constantly bombarded with information. As the day wears on they start to lose their sensitivity.

“They go through a phenomenon called downregulation, meaning they lose their sensitivity as the bombarding gets harder. Eventually, the tiredness and the lethargy that you experience and the less efficient processing of the information by the brain, plus slower reaction times, are a manifestation of that.

“During sleep, those circuits get rested and they upregulate; their sensitivity to these signals returns and they’re ready to receive a whole lot more information the next day.”

Helping aid solutions to complex problems and aiding creativity

Circadian neuroscientist, Russell Foster, from Oxford University claims that a good night sleep can help to solve problems and aid creativity. He said:

“What’s turned out to be really exciting is that our ability to come up with novel solutions to complex problems is hugely enhanced by a night of sleep. In fact, it’s been estimated to give us a threefold advantage. Sleeping at night enhances our creativity. And what seems to be going on is that, in the brain, those neural and synaptic connections that are important are linked and strengthened, while those that are less important tend to fade away.”

Builds muscle group hormone

Although the brain releases several hormones during sleep, growth hormone is probably the most vital to those who exercise due to its importance in muscle building. Responsible for stimulating cell growth, reproduction and regeneration, growth hormone is also linked with increased metabolism.

Increases energy

Glucose and glycogen are our main sources of energy and are particularly important as a fuel source for endurance events beyond 90 minutes. Sleep deprivation may decrease glycogen synthesis and slow the storage of glycogen.

Reduces appetite and hunger

Missing out on sleep increases appetite and hunger by elevating the body’s concentrations of the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin and decreasing the levels of the satiety hormone leptin. This makies weight management harder work than it should be.

How much sleep do we actually need?

Sleep experts believe 7.5 to 8 hours a night is ideal – but they acknowledge this will vary with different individuals. As one put it, how much sleep would you get if you could sleep as much as you wanted, without work, children or other things getting in the way? Think back to your last holiday. How many hours did you sleep without interruptions waking you?



Make time for sleep - even if you have a busy schedule. At least 7.5 to 8 hours a night is recommended.


Try to get to bed at the same time each night. If you can’t control when you fall asleep, always wake up at the same time. Try and wake with natural light, which suppresses melatonin, and don’t hit the snooze button.


Get the best mattress you can afford and turn the bedroom into a haven you feel relaxed in. Having a comfortable, welcoming bedroom will make sleep time more inviting. 4. HAVE A WIND-DOWN ROUTINE

Indulge in things that relax rather than stimulate you, such as a hot bath or herbal drink. Give yourself a break from social media and answering emails late at night.


Computers and phones emit blue light that suppresses sleep hormone melatonin.


Obsessing about not sleeping when you can’t get to sleep makes it worse. Think of other, more pleasant things.

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