WE all feel better after a good night’s sleep – but its benefits go far wider than banishing bad moods and keeping the dark circles at bay.
The amount of sleep we get – and its quality – can play a vital role in maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and it helps the heart and our weight, as well as our mental well-being.
We spend up to one-third of our lives sleeping. It is a basic human need, much like eating and drinking and as such, getting a healthy amount of sleep is vital.
World Sleep Day on March 15 aims to draw attention to its restorative, health-boosting effects, which researchers claim is nature’s best medicine to stay fit and healthy.
Lack of sleep, or a poor quality sleep, is known to have a significant negative impact on health, both in the short and long term.
Poor sleep has been associated with obesity, diabetes, a weakening of the immune system and even some cancers, as well as psychological conditions such as depression and anxiety.
Edinburgh’s Linda Russell, otherwise known as “The Sleep Lady,” says it is important to get good quality kip from a young age.
The children’s sleep and silent reflux expert, who runs sleep clinics in the Capital and works with families around the world, believes it crucial for a happy home life.
She said: “It is important for everyone in the family to get good quality sleep, whether it’s mums, dads or the children, it’s good for everyone.
“Children need good quality sleep to develop mentally. Without it, their concentration spans are lower than those who can get a good night’s sleep.
“Research has shown that children that get enough sleep are better readers, which is hugely important to learning, they are better listeners and children that get enough sleep have less behavioural issues.
“A lot of this can be linked to mums and dads and how much sleep they get as well. If they are tired they will tend to have less time to spend with their children, they are grumpy and so on.”
Linda says parents are often put under a lot of pressure about how their baby is sleeping with the first question many ask being: “How are they sleeping, are they sleeping through the night?”
But she adds that many perceived “sleep issues,” like sharing a bed, are fine if it works for the family and ensures everyone is well-rested.
She explains: “The benefits of a good night’s sleep are a happy mum and dad, a contented baby, toddler or child that will settle much easier into nursery or school and will be more adaptable.”
Her theories are backed by other experts, with studies showing that those who don’t sleep well are more likely to have problems with attention and learning.
Pupils who get more hours than their counterparts generally get the better grades.
Kids can also get hyperactive as a result of sleep deprivation, in contrast to adults who just feel tired.
But improved learning through sleep isn’t just something children benefit from – during sleep we can strengthen memories or “practice” skills learned while awake in a process called consolidation.
It means that we are best trying to learn a new skill after a decent night’s rest as it helps improve memory.
As well as making memories stronger, our brain likes to reorganise and restructure them too, which can also result in more creativity.
Anyone aiming to go on a diet could have differing results because their sleep patterns can affect them.
Well-rested dieters have been shown to lose more fat rather than those who were sleep-deprived – with those getting less sleep losing more muscle mass.
Linda said: “There’s been a lot written saying if you don’t get enough sleep then your stress hormones build up, which can make you put on weight. But also, if you’re not getting enough sleep, you either tend to comfort eat or don’t eat because you’re anxious.
“It can affect your diet as you might feel like you need a sugar boost, so eat something like chocolate or a big sticky cake. Other people might have their appetite suppressed by lack of sleep so it’s important to get a balance.”
It is also important to our immune systems, with recent research suggesting that a lack of sleep can produce the same effect as stress.
The study found that white blood cell counts jumped when participants were sleep-deprived, reducing our ability to stave off bugs, in the same way they do in response to stress.
Being able to have a good sleep has been proven to improve sporting performances, with athletes typically experiencing less daytime fatigue and having more stamina after enjoying ten hours or more.
Other studies have found it can be linked to how long we live.
In a 2010 study of women aged 50 to 79, more deaths occurred in women who got less than five hours or more than six and a half hours of sleep per night.
Those of us that get six or more hours have lower blood levels of inflammatory proteins linked to strokes, diabetes, heart disease and premature aging.
People who suffer from sleep apnea or insomnia have shown improvements in blood pressure and inflammation after receiving treatment for the sleep disorders.
Most are preventable or treatable with the right diet or lifestyle changes yet less than one-third of sufferers seek professional help.
Lack of sleep is related to many psychological conditions such as depression, anxiety and psychosis and Linda believes it can also cause postnatal depression.
She added: “There’s only so long your body can put up with being sleep-deprived and living on reserves. If you don’t get enough sleep, it will take its toll.”
Such conditions are treatable and anyone who suspects they have one should visit their GP.
• For more information on World Sleep Day visit http://www.worldsleepday.org.