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Understanding the True Power of Sleep

The biological need to sleep can't really be denied, but people often don't fully understand the power of sleep, and there are plenty of misconceptions about it. The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) is a good source for information on how you can sleep better and why doing so can improve your overall quality of life. Here's what you should know.

A Sleepy Brain

Sleep deficiency can have a negative effect on the human brain. In fact, people know this pretty instinctively; if you're having difficulty thinking or focusing, it's not uncommon to blame it on a bad night's sleep. But what's actually going on?

As you go through your daily routine, your brain takes in a huge amount of information. Just like any other working machine, your brain also undergoes a certain amount of stress each day. So while you sleep, two things happen: first, your brain processes all of that information, builds new pathways, and stores what you've learned. This not only allows you to remember the information you've taken in, but it also helps you use it appropriately. The physical damage and effects of stress are also repaired, which is done through a variety of mechanisms, depending on exactly what the problem is.

By understanding these two roles of sleep, it's obvious what can happen to your cognitive ability if you don't get enough. You'll move from one stress- and stimulus-filled day to another without giving your brain a chance to recover. As a result, research shows that a sleep-deprived brain can result in difficulty staying focused, a reduced ability to think creatively, impaired memory, and a decreased ability to deal with stress.

The Tired Body

To a very large extent, your body needs sleep for roughly the same reason as your brain. Everything you do each day stresses your muscles, requiring repairs. Your food and environment also expose your system to substances, both helpful and harmful, that need to be processed. All this happens while you sleep.

During those seemingly dormant hours, your body also resets and restores certain hormonal levels and responses, with leptin, ghrelin, and insulin getting most of the attention. Although all three of these hormones are very closely connected to your metabolism, leptin and ghrelin work in tandem to manage your feelings of fullness and hunger. If the balance of these hormones is disrupted through a lack of sleep, you'll feel hungry even when you've taken in sufficient calories.

But what about insulin? While it doesn't directly impact your hunger, insulin does control your blood sugar levels. And this, in turn, can impact your feelings of hunger. But if your body stops responding properly to insulin, you're also at an increased risk of developing diabetes. Based on these factors, numerous studies have found a strong link between a lack of sleep, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

Your muscles also repair themselves while you sleep. Denying your body this opportunity means you'll benefit less from any exercise that you have the energy to drag yourself through. If you work out, a lack of sleep could also lead to injuries because your muscles won't have time to improve from one workout to the next.

The true power of sleep is its ability to affect all aspects of your life and health. If you've been feeling like the quality of your sleep has been taking a nosedive, Sleep Awareness Week is the perfect time to change your sleep habits and start getting the rest you deserve.

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