Sleep plays a crucial role in our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. Just as we value a good diet and exercise, we need to value sleep in recognition of the wide-ranging benefits it brings to us.
Far from being a minor concern, poor sleep can have a major impact on our mental wellbeing and day to day lives. Sleep plays a vital role in our relationships, mood and ability to concentrate.
Data included in the Mental Health Foundation’s Sleep Matters report revealed that, in comparison to people who sleep well, people who suffer from insomnia are four times more likely to have relationship problems, three times more likely to experience low mood, three times more likely to lack concentration during the day and twice as likely to suffer from energy deficiency. Poor sleep can increase the risk of developing poor mental health, and can lead to a range of illnesses such as depression and anxiety.
It is well known that sleep brings many physical benefits, helping us to build and repair our bodies, protecting our immune systems and relaxing muscles. When we are feeling physically well however, it is easy to push sleep as a priority aside in favour of more ‘productive’ activities, forgetting just how beneficial sleep is.
The focus on productivity in society has breached many aspects of our lives; we risk falling into the trap of seeing sleep as an inconvenience, a hindrance to productivity and time that could be better ‘spent’ elsewhere. In truth, sleep is one of the best investments of our time and in ourselves.
During our sleep, the brain can process information, consolidate memory, and enable us to learn and function effectively during daytime. Whilst we sleep, our brain is not only strengthening memories but it is also reorganising them, picking out the emotional details and helping us produce new insights and creative ideas. Sleeping well has the potential to profoundly impact our lives, improving our mood, productivity and interpersonal relationships. If we compromise on our sleep, we compromise on the quality of our lives.
While it is true that we need to prioritise sleep in our lives, it is also important to remember that the amount of sleep we actually need changes. When we’re awake, we build up a kind of “sleep debt” which can only be repaid through sleeping. This is regulated by a mechanism in the body called the sleep homeostat, which controls our drive to sleep. If we have a greater sleep debt, then the sleep homeostat tells us that we need more sleep. In a healthy situation, “sleep debt” is paid off night by night. However, the debt can also build up and be repaid gradually over a period of weeks or even months, for example, if we under-sleep for several nights in a row then we will need to repay the sleep debt in the near future.
There is no universal answer to the question of how much sleep a person needs; some people need more sleep than others. What is important is that we find out how much sleep we need and ensure that we do all we can to protect and preserve enough time.