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The Importance of Sleep on Your Health Goals

Sleep has definitely been a hot topic over the last few years in the nutritional therapy forums and it’s talked about much more now in mainstream media. Many of us aren’t getting enough quality sleep and even if our energy levels feel okay, sleep deficiency may be silently but negatively impacting our health.

How much sleep do we need?

Between 7 and 9 hours is the general rule, but this is something you may want to test out over a holiday period (ie. No alarm clocks), to find out what your natural level is. During times of stress, intense exercise and illness you may need more sleep to support recovery and repair in the body.

So aside, from the obvious lack of energy, how can lack of sleep affect us?

Weight Gain

Find yourself eating more after a poor night’s sleep? Sleep deficiency can have a direct impact on your hunger and satiety hormones. Insufficient sleep causes levels of the hormone leptin, which decreases appetite, to fall. In contrast levels of the hormone ghrelin, which triggers hunger, increase.

One study by the University of Colarado found that participants sleeping just 5 hours a night over a work-week gained 2lb of fat!

Blood Sugar Control

In addition, lack of sleep can affect how your body controls its blood sugar levels. This itself can further encourage weight gain through its impact on hunger, energy and fat storage, as well as food choices. Cravings for sugary foods and simple carbohydrates can increase. In a vicious cycle, poorly controlled blood sugar can impact our ability to sleep.

Weight gain aside, poorly controlled blood sugar can increase your risk of type 2 diabetes.


Sleeping less than 6 or 7 hours a night can have a huge impact on your immune system.

According to Professor Matthew Walker just one night of only four hours sleep can reduce levels of natural killer cells (key players in your immune system) by up to 70%. He adds that insufficient sleep has also been linked to cancers of the breast, prostate and bowel.

Mood and Brain Health

Sleep deprivation contributes to mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. Unsurprisingly the National Sleep Foundation (USA) reports that people with insomnia are as much as 10 times more likely to have depression and up to 17 times more likely to have anxiety, than those who sleep normally. Naturally lack of sleep can worsen symptoms and so improving sleep should be a key part of any therapy.

Sleep is a period of time when the brain is able to effectively clear itself of waste, especially with regards to reducing amyloid plaques (a build-up of which are generally found in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s disease) In this respect lack of sleep has been correlated with the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease.

Athletic/Training Performance

Sleep is one of the key areas to focus on in relation to athletic performance, as not getting enough can not only negatively impact performance, but increase the risk of injury too.

In terms of performance, studies have shown that even moderate levels of sleep deprivation can reduce reaction times as much as (if not more) than being intoxicated! In particular, sleep loss amongst adolescents can be one of the biggest predictors of sports injury.

Memory and the ability to learn are also affected by lack of sleep, which can be pivotal for training progressions, especially in mentally skilled activities.

Restoration and recovery are crucial aspects of any training schedule, and sleep is perhaps the most important time for this. The deepest part of the sleep cycle is when human growth hormone (HGH) – essential for muscle repair, growth, bone building and fat metabolism - is released and cortisol (one of the stress hormones that basically breaks things down) is regulated.

What Else?

Listed above are just some of the areas sleep can impact. Links have been made to stroke, cognitive impairment, osteoporosis and heart disease also.

For a deeper dive into this area I can strongly recommend the book “Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams” by Matthew Walker. This book or audiobook provides us with some fascinating and compelling information into why sleep is so important.

Time to Prioritize?

Many of us trade off sleep for other activities, whether that is work or play, and culturally there has often been a sense of weakness around needing to sleep. However, given the importance sleep has in just about every area of health, it’s definitely time to make it a priority if you don’t think you are getting enough.
Sadly, it’s not something that we can generally catch up on over the weekend; however, there may be some benefit to taking short naps during the day.

If you struggle with getting good quality sleep, or even just getting to sleep in the first place, come back for part two with some helpful, tried and tested tips.

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